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It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chick Lit: A Holiday Anthology

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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chick Lit

A Holiday Anthology

S.E. Babin

Geralyn Corcillo

Jax Abbey

Amy Gettinger

Holly Tierney-Bedord

Monique McDonell

Tracy Krimmer

Kate O’Keeffe

Vivian Brooks

Susan Murphy

Laurie Baxter

Contents

Amy Gettinger

Deck the Malls with Purple Peacocks

Geralyn Corcillo

It Doesn’t Show Signs of Stopping

Holly Tierney-Bedord

The Miraculous Power of Butter Cookies

Jax Abbey

Jingle Bells & Social Fails

Kate O’Keeffe

I’m Scheming of a White Christmas

Laurie Baxter

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Monique McDonell

All I Want For Christmas is…?

Vivian Brooks

Christmas Cookies

S.E. Babin

A Holly Jolly Heartache

Susan Murphy

Mistletoe & Mayhem

Tracy Krimmer

Candy Christmas

Copyright © 2016

All copyrights owned by their respective authors.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Cover Design by Viola Estrella

Proofreading by Amy Gettinger

Formatting by S.E. Babin

Deck the Malls with Purple Peacocks

A Short Sequel to Alice in Monologue Land

Amy Gettinger

1

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Orange County, CA

***

Ai. What the heck?”

Araceli Martinez had just tripped on something solid and dropped the large box of Christmas ornaments she was holding with a resounding clatter.

Mierda.” How many had broken this time? Ugh. Another pay cut.

She stood up casually in the Christmas tree-filled area of the department store where she was restocking merchandise at 5:30 a.m. and kicked the offending item away from her feet. Oh. Stupid wooden nutcracker, a smirking Hawaiian hula dancer with a hula skirt and a coconut bra. Araceli’s least favorite item in the department. And she’d tripped on it because her long, dark hair was in her eyes. She reached into her pocket for a band to tie it with. Only a linty candy in there. She slowly panned the giant children’s clothing department that the Christmas trees had been crammed into for the season. No one was around—no witnesses to her gigantic stumble.

Gracias a Dios. Maybe she was okay.

She searched inside the box of broken blown-glass ornaments, found a golden ribbon attached to a broken one, and whipped her hair into a pony tail in three seconds, using the ribbon to secure it. Then, with a tiny grin, she turned back to the dropped box to salvage what she could of the jumbled glass owls and pine cones. She hung the good ones neatly on the fake beige tree whose stale-smelling branches needed “refreshing.” The glittery golden owls with their huge eyes gave the tree a wise air, but the plain brown pine cones—why use perfectly good blown glass for a dumb old pine cone? Americans were strange.

Good grief. When Araceli had her own store, she would display only real green Christmas trees with that real, piney aroma, dressed in a rainbow of traditional ornaments—ceramic Santas in cloth sarapes and straw sombreros, real red chili peppers, and fat, painted, wooden mariachi singers. Visions of these things made her homesick for Christmas in Michoacan, Mexico, where she’d last spent Christmas in 2002, a month before she’d come to the U.S. Except now that Mama was gone, it wouldn’t be the same. Oh, Mama. She crossed herself and a fat tear rolled down her cheek. Her other relatives had gone to Mexico City for jobs now.

So Araceli could not go home again.

As she lifted the fourth broken owl out of the box, a male voice said at her elbow, “What have we here?”

“Aaah!” she whirled around to find Jacob Thinnes behind her, a smirk on his face. Jacob was the good-looking blond shift supervisor for the extra stock clerks Richandowe’s hired for the holidays. About her age, early thirties, he often disappeared into his office for long periods. Once, when she had entered that office to ask for an hour off for an appointment, he’d been talking online with a group of heavily accented male speakers. He’d ushered her out fast, with a stern warning to knock, right past the clanging, flashing video game on his computer screen.

“Why is that box still half full?” Jacob asked now. “Put it on the tree. There’s plenty of room.”

Araceli hung her head. “I tripped and dropped the box. Some ornaments broke.”

Jacob frowned. “Again? They’re ten dollars a pop.” He looked into the box. “Wow. A bunch of them broke.”

She nodded, and a yawn escaped her. It was nearing the end of her ten-hour Richandowe’s shift, which had followed an evening business class at Garden Beach College and a shorter shift at her day job.

He scowled. “Jeez, you’re clumsy.”

She winced, waiting for the axe to fall. He’d let her off once for merchandise breakage before. But now?

He glanced around him. “Okay. I’ll let it slide one last time. But I need a favor in return. Come clean my house. Say later today at 1:00.” He scrawled an address on a slip of paper and handed it to her. “Here. Come dressed to work. And don’t be late.” He winked. “Do it right and this never happened. There might even be a little bonus in it for you.”

Araceli balked. “But it’s my day off my other job.”

“So?”

Maybe she should just quit this job there and then. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Taking on a cleaning job on her day off would rob her of much-needed sleep. But she was so close. So close! This night job paid pretty well, and in the next month before Christmas, she planned to make the last few hundred dollars needed to start up her business in downtown Santa Ana. She had her eye on a particular storefront, which currently had a FOR RENT sign in the window, where she planned to open her own dress shop in January. Was she going to give up on her dream now—just because of a little stumble and some extra work?

“Yeah, fine,” she mumbled, and sliced open another box of ornaments.

“See ya later,” he said, and she felt a hand skim across her slim behind.

She turned around with fire in her eyes, and he backed off, palms up. “Okay, okay. See you at 1:00.”

As she sliced into the new box of ornaments, muttering to herself in Spanish, another person approached. Mad enough to bite the head off a tiger, Araceli kept her head down, examining the new box full of bright purple and pink blown-glass peacocks by a blue tree.

But the familiar scent of Paco Rabanne lingered. “Hey, Araceli. What the feck?”

Maybe if she ignored Quito, he’d go away.

Nope.

“Araceli. What’s he buggering you about?”

She knew Quito Barzaga from summer language classes at Garden Beach College. He was tall for a Cuban guy, maybe five-feet-nine—way taller than her—and built pretty solid. His dark eyes had a devilish sparkle and his slightly crooked grin could charm the socks off an old lady. He’d just come to the U.S. a year before.

“Quito, it’s ‘bugging’, not ‘buggering’.”

“Let me talk to you in Spanish.” He flashed her a melting grin.

“No. We’ve been through this. You need to practice your English. It stinks.”

“But my slang is better than yours. You didn’t understand when I said, ‘I’m your number one Stan, Sis. I ship you, hundo P. And you don’t know LB, FB, or RT.’”

She threw her hands in the air. “Quito. You have a cell phone. I don’t. How can I learn English slang when I work and live with Spanish-speakers? And why would I want to? I hate slang.”

“You work too much.”

“And you not enough.” She hung a peacock on the blue tree. “What’s ‘hundo P’?”

His eyes glinted. “Not telling. Hey, those are lindos.” Quito grabbed two of the glass peacock ornaments, glittery confections with a spray of real fuchsia and purple feathers sprouting from their purple glass tail fans. “Like TD. To death.”

She snorted. “TD? What’s that? Just say ‘pretty’.”

He held the peacocks up to his earlobes like they were earrings and wiggled his long, wing-like eyebrows. “Am I pretty, wearing these turkeys?”

She giggled. “They’re peacocks.”

He batted his eyes, preened, and danced amid the Christmas trees, holding the sparkly ornaments to his ears. “Jingle bells, Santa smells, Happy Halloween … Am I pretty now?”

Araceli giggled. “No. You’re not pretty, you turkey. The word is handsome. You’re handso—”

Quickly, she caught herself and bent her head back to the box. “Don’t you have anything else to do, Quito?”

He checked his watch. “No. So you think I’m handsome, Señorita Awesome Socks?” He came near and held the peacocks up to her ears. She looked up, and he grinned. “Chica. They look great on you.”

She waved him away. “Go talk slang to Esme. I have work to do.”

He hung a peacock on the silver tree next to him. “Why are you so mean to me?”

“I’m not.” She was, and she knew it. “Hey, wrong tree, Turkey Man. Peacocks go over here on the blue tree.” As she grabbed the peacock off the silver branch, the hook and metal loop at the top pulled completely out of the blown glass part, which fell from her fingers—right to the floor with Araceli’s sinking heart and probably her job. Why had such a clumsy person ever thought she could do this delicate work?

Except Quito’s reflexes were fast. He scooped the bauble up before it hit the floor and took the loop from her fingers, inserting it back into the glass. Smooth as silk. The peacock looked like new. “Ta-da! Alabaster!”

“Uh, thanks,” she said, amazed. “I think you mean ‘Alakazam.’”

“Hey, I’m ESL, and you are, too! But you didn’t come to Binh’s citizenship party.” His voice sounded wounded.

“I had to work.” True, but she’d actually asked for a house-cleaning shift during their friend Binh’s party, to give her a valid excuse not to come. She couldn’t face all the joyful faces of Binh’s family, knowing she was so far from ever being a citizen like them. So far from ever being successful like them.

So far from even being legal.

He hung another peacock, this time on the right tree, and breathed very low in her ear, “I’m sorry you can’t get a green card. Dumb Congress.”

She smiled. “Dumb old Congress.”

His lips touched her ear as he murmured, slow and husky, “Dumb old, estúpido, turkey Congress.”

Oh boy. Was the room getting hot or what? Quito’s cheek grazed hers, and she liked it, Paco Rabanne cloud and all. She took a step back. “Shhh. Don’t talk about that here. I have enough trouble keeping this job.” She shooed him off. “Just … go away.”

He frowned, leaning over to snag a piece of paper off the floor. “What’s this? An address? You live here? 6642 Halbert Street, Huntington Beach?”

That was the paper with Jacob’s address on it. She snatched it from Quito’s hand. “How did that get on the floor? Quito, go away.”

“Whatever.” And he wandered off toward Esme, who was straightening boys’ jeans.

2

Araceli finished her shift at 8:00 a.m. and stopped at the church to light a candle for her mother. Then she drove home to her rented room in Santa Ana in the home of Señor and Señora Casabuena—Enrique and Dulce Maria. It was their old car that she drove daily, with a fake license.

She had no family in Orange County any more. Twelve years ago, her cousin, Veronica, had left town for parts unknown to escape her abusive husband, Jorge Lopez. Araceli had stayed behind with her boyfriend, Luis Furtado, in Fountain Valley. But that relationship had soon ended, and Araceli had come to live with her Uncle Rogelio and his son, Jose, in Santa Ana. For several long years, Rogelio and Jose had been her protectors.

Not.

Rather, they had demanded that she cook and clean for them daily, on top of her two jobs. They’d also demanded a huge chunk of her pay as “rent.” Since both the men worked little, drank like pigs, and hit her if she tried to speak up for herself, Araceli was only a little sad when they’d been casualties of a nasty auto accident in 2012.

Then she had moved in with sweet Enrique and Dulce Maria, a middle-aged couple who had no children. They only charged her a tiny rent and fed her three meals a day like a family should. And she’d finally started saving money for her long-held dream of owning her own dress store. She’d always loved dresses of all shapes and sizes, especially Mexican dresses. If she could design, sew and sell them, surrounded by patterns and fabric and the hum of sewing machines, she would be the happiest of women, no matter where she lived.

Which was an issue. Michoacan now had local drug cartels and organized crime that made life for a single woman much rougher. The constant threat of cartel violence kept many local women home from their jobs.

On the other hand, being illegal here in the U.S. meant she had to be very careful, but it was worth it to be in wonderful California. Except for that little legality technicality. She wanted to apply for a green card, but there was simply no good path from her illegal status to a legal status. An amnesty would have been wonderful, but with Congress against it, Araceli could only continue making her own way here, pretending to be legal.

She had gotten very good at pretending.

When Araceli entered the neat little Casabuena house, a wonderful aroma met her nose. Dulce Maria called from the kitchen, “Araceli! Come in here for[_ huevos rancheros_]!”

Dulce Maria, a round, cheerful mamacita, handed the drooping Araceli a plate heaped with the classic Mexican breakfast of tortillas, rice, beans, and eggs smothered in a spicy red sauce. “Eat, chica. You’re so skinny you’ll dry up and blow away with the next Santa Ana wind.”

Araceli’s eyes crossed, she was so exhausted.

Dulce Maria sat her down, tucked a napkin in her shirt, and spooned a bite into Araceli’s mouth, as if she were a baby, and then ate a bite herself. “See? Yum, yum, yum!”

When Araceli started snoring sitting up, Dulce Maria said, “You’re skinny as a sunflower stem. Three more bites.”

Araceli obliged, then went straight to bed, fully clothed.

Her alarm rang early. Way too early. She shut it off, and woke again at 12:45.

“Oh, no! Dios mio!” She got up and flew out the door past poor, confused Dulce Maria, making the aged car do twice the speed that made it vibrate like a washing machine. She was ten minutes late, and she approached Jacob’s door with fear roiling in her stomach. But he was on the phone, so he just let her into the messy ranch house and pointed at the cleaning supplies. She worked for over three hours cleaning bathrooms and corners that hadn’t seen a mop for years. Finally, she finished the kitchen and stood up. Done. She needed dinner, a shower and a lot more sleep. But at this rate, she’d barely get a nap in before her next night shift at Richandowe’s.

Jacob entered the kitchen, smiling. “Nice work.”

She smiled back. “Thanks. I have to go.” She paused. “You said something about … a bonus?”

He grinned wider, and moved in so close she could smell his minty breath. Then he clamped his arms around her and planted a big, sloppy kiss on her.

While she had once wondered if this guy was boyfriend material, that idea had vanished once she’d seen him playing video games at work. So this kiss was an affront to her, minty breath or not. However, Araceli had learned a thing or two in her time in the U.S. Like self-defense. Very quickly, she broke his hold, shoved him away, and raised her foot to kick him in the crotch. Then she thought better of it and lowered the foot.

Reluctantly.

He looked wounded. “What the hell, bitch.”

Her eyes narrowed and she grabbed her purse, ready to swing it at him if he approached her again. “I’m going.” She started toward the door.

“See you next week then. Same time, same channel.”

“Channel? Is the TV dirty? I cleaned it.”

His brow furrowed. “No, dumbbell. You’re coming back to clean here next week, and the week after, and the week after that. Every week. Get it?”

Her heart sank. “No. You told me to come once, today. I came. We’re done.”

He shook his head. “Oh, no, no. See, I heard from a little bird that you’re not what you seem.”

Uh-oh. No. Please, God, no.

He went on. “Yep, I know you’re in the U.S. illegally.”

She sucked in her breath audibly.

He finished, “So you’ll come back and clean my house whenever I want, or you’ll lose your Richandowe’s job.”

She squared her shoulders. “Fine. Then I quit my Richandowe’s job now.” She tossed her head and started out again, but he ran and blocked her way at the front door.

“Not so fast, babe. I know where your other job is. You work for that cleaning agency, Shiny Zone, in the daytime.”

A bubble of raging heat started in Araceli’s stomach and swept up her chest to her face. “What are you saying?”

“I got your number, baby.” He ran a lazy finger along her left shoulder, down to the elbow.

Her elbow started fast toward his chin, but he stopped it with a quick hand.

“Girl, I can get you fired from that job, and any job you get in this town with one little sentence in the ear of the business owner unless you come and clean my house every week for free. Plus, my mother needs a free cleaner. And my two aunts, my grandmother, and a friend. All weekly. I’ll give you their addresses when I see you. Tonight.” He grinned devilishly and swept his arm cavalierly out the door as she flew past him, fuming and tearful.

***

This was unbearable. This was unthinkable. She’d gotten so far, saved her money for so long, endured so much from her blasted cabrón of an uncle and his blasted pendejo of a son. Those guys had burned her with cigarettes once, when she cooked something they didn’t like. Which was when she started self-defense classes, promising herself never again to be so abused.

Now she steered her rattle-trap car through a thick mist of tears, and somehow, she ended up parked on a downtown street in Santa Ana. She got out and stomped around the block to see the little storefront, the one that she dreamed of having her dress shop in. A dress shop for girls and mamas and grandmas and ladies. One where a mother might bring her daughter to find a beautiful, lacy confection for a quinceañera or a gorgeous, silk bridal gown or just a simple sun dress, or even a traditional Mexican dancing dress with yards and yards of colorful fabric in the skirt. She stood there, looking at the big window and imagining the shop bustling with customers, her happy customers. But something was wrong here. The usually dirty window was now clean. The shop was still unoccupied, but the FOR RENT sign was gone.

She went home and cried hard. Then she couldn’t eat or sleep with the wild rage burning inside her. “Ai!” Her storefront had been rented. And some stupid cabrón had told Jacob about her legal status. Who even cared about her legal status? Who that she worked with actually knew her legal status?

She stopped.

That devil Quito.

And she was the one who’d gotten him this job. But it had to be Quito. No one else knew. But why would he tell Jacob? Didn’t he hate Jacob? Or was that all an act? Were they secret friends? Nah. Quito couldn’t act to save his life. How could Quito be such a bad guy? Maybe he’d let it slip in casual conversation. Except it was her whole life he’d let slip, not just any random detail. Didn’t he get that? He was either really bad or really stupid. All the more reason not to trust anyone with her secrets and not to hang around with Quito or anyone else who might blow her cover. She’d have to double down on her efforts to keep herself safe from now on.

Except the cat was out of the bag. Unless she moved to another state and started over. Jacob wouldn’t be able to follow her there, would he? The prospect of starting over in a different place, probably a cold place with snow, or maybe one with no Mexicans, filled her with fear and started the tears flowing all over again.

***

At Richandowe’s that night in Jacob’s office, Araceli received a list of five more addresses and phone numbers of Jacob’s relatives, and the times they needed their houses cleaned.

She stared at Jacob. “I can’t do this. I already have two jobs. If I add all this, there will be no time for me to sleep.”

He smirked and shrugged. “Should have thought of that when you entered this country illegally and took jobs we Americans should have.”

“So Americans were cleaning your house before yesterday? They’re terrible cleaners.”

“Don’t get smart with me. You lied to get this Richandowe’s job.”

“I want to be legal.” She lowered her voice. “It’s not my fault the immigration system makes that impossible. But I can’t do this.” She pointed at his list. “Without quitting one of my regular jobs.”

“You do, and I’ll tell the boss at your remaining job about your little status problem.”

“But—”

He narrowed his eyes. “You even so much as call in sick at Richandowe’s and I’ll go straight to Mr. Proops with your secret. You’ll be out on your ear in five minutes. Have fun, alien.” He opened the door and pointed her out.

“This is a seasonal job. It ends soon anyway.”

He hissed, “Then I’ll find you ten more cleaning jobs to do with all your spare time. For free. Bye, Sweetie.” And he pushed her out the door, where she ran into Quito in the hall.

He looked angry. “What? Jacob calls you Sweetie?”

Araceli waved her hands in agitation and shame and walked away, brimming with tears.

3

The next day, Araceli started working both her jobs plus all the extra cleaning jobs Jacob had given her. She had no time for church or eating or evening telenovelas with Dulce Maria, and she never got more than three hours of sleep at a time. She started out tired, but by week three, she was dog tired, bone tired, dead tired from schlepping from place to place. She fell asleep in the sofa department during her Richandowe’s shift more than once. She missed the last few classes of her business course at the college and flunked the final. And still she worked. And worked. And worked, keeping her head down, avoiding Quito, avoiding everyone at the store.

Socializing with traitors would not serve her.

The only bright spot in this period was getting a cleaning job on December sixth at the home of her old ESL instructor, Alice Chalmers, an amazing woman whom Araceli had known since her immigration to California in 2003. Since then, Araceli had only seen Alice occasionally, since Alice didn’t teach the night classes Araceli took.

On December sixth, Alice’s college-age son Jamey let Araceli into Alice’s house to clean. What a cozy home, with walls full of pictures of her family. As Araceli finished, Alice returned home from work in a flurry of bags and books and papers flying everywhere.

Alice, amazingly still a honey blonde after all these years, paid Araceli, adding a nice tip. “Can you stay for lunch, Araceli? I’d love to catch up.”

Tears sprang to Araceli’s eyes. Jacob had her so tightly booked. “So sorry, Ms. Chalmers. I … want to. I do. But I’m already late for my next job.” Out the door she flew, late again. Sad again.

That night, Araceli got a sore throat, which blossomed into a cold and cough, and then a fever. She felt worse every day, but still she worked, and she barely slept. The morning of the fourteenth, she woke up and stood up, but got dizzy and fell back into bed. She picked up the phone to call in sick. Except she couldn’t. She had to clean Jacob’s house before his Christmas party that night. She put the phone down and cried.

Jacob had won. He’d really won. She’d soon lose her jobs and have to spend her business money on rent or go back to Mexico and start over. Mexico had once been her happy home, before the drug cartels and organized crime had made it hell. They’d made it impossible for her mother to get work or medical care, and she’d died. Could Araceli go back there and establish a business there now? Could she somehow get around those macho drug sellers and their damn guns to build beauty in the form of a dress shop? Maybe she’d learn to shoot a gun to protect herself from drug cartel rape and torture. Mexican women were doing that. Or maybe she’d marry a drug kingpin and live large.

Hah. Good one. Araceli Martinez, Señora Drug Lord.

She put a hand to her neck, feeling for her cross pendant, which her mother had given to her.

No cross.

Mierda.” Somehow, she’d lost it in all this rushing around. But where? Well, she might have missed church for weeks, and she might have lost her favorite cross, but she was still straight-as-a-rod, salt-of-the-earth Araceli—nobody’s drug moll.

Could she ask the U.S. for asylum, saying Mexico was too dangerous for her to return to? She sighed. Unlikely the U.S. government would open that excuse up for millions of Mexicans to use.

Dulce Maria came to her bedroom door. “Araceli! Oh, you poor, sick baby. I made you my special [_Estrellita Sopita _]for your throat. Here.” She sat down by Araceli on the bed and tucked a napkin into the younger woman’s shirt, a ridiculous thing that made Araceli laugh every time she did it. Then Dulce Maria spooned the wonderful rich chicken broth with pasta and eggs into Araceli’s mouth.

Bueno. I make you all better, right?”

Araceli nodded. Indeed, she felt stronger, maybe strong enough to go clean that bastard Jacob’s house, after all. She hauled herself up and got dressed, then wobbled out to the car and drove to Jacob’s house.

Jacob left her scrubbing his hall bathroom floor and ran to the store. She was scrubbing the tub when she had a terrible coughing fit. The cleaning fumes in the windowless bathroom must have triggered it. She drank handfuls of water from the tap, but the deep, rattling cough continued. Well, this had to stop. She had two more houses to clean today and a shift at Richandowe’s to work all night. She sat on the bathroom floor to get her breath, and held a hand to her head—pretty warm. Her other hand went to her throat to finger her cross.

Still not there.

A sharp knock at the front door startled her. All she wanted was to rest, but no sense making Jacob angry by not letting him in with armloads of groceries. She rose unsteadily and started toward it. But her legs moved so slowly down the hall, like through bubbling refried beans.

“Coming,” she called, in a small voice. Then spots appeared before her eyes, and as the front door opened, her legs went out from under her.

***

Quito was holding her in Jacob’s foyer, having somehow caught her as she fell. “Another amazing save by Magic Turkey Man.”

“What the feck?” He frowned. “Araceli. Why did you fall? Are you sick?” Pause. “Did you call me Turkey Man?”

She’d said that out loud then? She blushed. “It’s ‘what the heck,’ Quito.” She wriggled out of his arms, rubbing her head, trying to stand. “I’m just—ai. Dizzy.” She quickly sat back down on the floor.

He knelt by her. “What the feck? You look awful. You’re as white as a computer Greek.”

“Computer ‘geek’,” she corrected. “Wow, I don’t feel so good.”

He whipped out his phone. “I’m calling 9-1-1.”

“No, no!” She reached for the phone and hit the red button. “This is nothing. I’m fine, really. Uh, why are you here?”

“I wanted to talk to you, and you’re avoiding me at work. I remembered your address from that paper, so I came over.”

“But—”

Jacob’s front door opened, and Jacob walked in, carrying two grocery bags. A big scowl formed on his face at the sight of the duo in his path. “What the hell?”

“Why is he here?” Quito said to Araceli.

“It’s my house,” Jacob thundered. “Did you hit her? Why’s she on the floor? Get out of here, Barzaga. Right now, or you’re fired.”

“No, I …” Quito looked at Araceli, crushed. “You live here? With him? Is that why you’re so mean to me?”

Araceli started coughing again as Jacob said the most awful words she’d ever heard. “Yes, she does. Beat it.”

“Whatever.” That one word from Quito was full of devastation, so full it would have made Araceli cry, if she hadn’t been choking for air. Quito left, and the door closed.

Jacob looked down at her. “You’re a lot of trouble. I’m gonna need some cash from you every week to keep you on. Call it a hundred bucks to start.”

“Wha—?” Araceli felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. Then all went black.

4

Araceli woke up coughing hard. She was in the driver’s seat of her car, parked across the street from Jacob’s house. She shivered in her thin work clothes in the cold car. Leave it to Jacob to take good care of her.

Not.

And steal all her time and money.

Tap, tap, tap.

An annoyed-looking gray-haired woman tapped at the window.

Araceli rolled the glass down an inch.

“Move your car. This is my parking spot,” the cranky woman complained.

Still coughing and feeling like a hippo was perched on her chest, Araceli started the car and pointed it toward home. Only at the stop sign did she notice the yellow note taped to her steering wheel saying: “YOU MISS WORK AND I’LL TELL YOUR SECRET.”

Mierda. Where was she supposed to work today? She really couldn’t remember. Maybe at Shiny Zone. She turned toward the agency and somehow, the Blessed Virgin got her there. She was almost at the agency’s parking lot when that paper on the steering wheel kept her from turning it correctly. She was trying to rip the damn thing off when she missed the turn and the car plowed up over a curb onto the sidewalk, stopping just feet from the building.

People started yelling.

“Lady, are you drunk?” came a brusque male voice at her car door, and then people were pulling on her, lifting her, poking her and asking her questions that just swam around her head like goldfish.

Someone carried her into the Shiny Zone front office. As she sat there, dazed and aching, who should walk in the front door but Alice Chalmers. Alice approached the receptionist in her peach linen shirt and black teacher skirt.

“Hello. I found this necklace in my guest bathroom after Araceli Martinez came to clean my house last week. Can you give it to her? Also, could you contact her and ask her to call me? I used to be her teacher. I want to talk with her.”

The receptionist, a short, wizened Vietnamese lady, pointed over Alice’s shoulder. “Ask her yourself. She right over there.” She shook her head and muttered, “Not working here anymore. Showing up at work drunk. Plus illegal.”

Alice turned to see Araceli looking like death on the chair. She made a face at the girl’s rattling cough.

“Oh, dear. Can someone help this girl into my car?”

***

Araceli spent two days in the hospital with pneumonia, long enough to get onto the right antibiotics and to get well-hydrated. Dulce Maria visited Thursday, and burst into tears, howling at how badly she’d taken care of Araceli. Araceli had to comfort poor Dulce Maria, who Enrique escorted home soon after. Alice also visited, bringing flowers and candy.

“Thanks,” croaked Araceli, who wasn’t sure she was allowed to eat chocolates. The nurses were so strict.

On Friday, Alice came back and told Araceli about her life. “Kate’s in Paris for Christmas with some friends—freezing her ass off, I hear. Evan’s working nearby for Blizzard. He likes it. The other boys are done with their semesters, so they’re home, but the house is still like a ghost town, with all of us in our separate corners, playing video games or watching movies on laptops with headsets.” She shook her head. “Kids these days.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Araceli’s eyes fluttered.

Alice said, “Look, I just finished giving my last final exam. Why don’t you nap a while, and I’ll sit here and grade these papers.” She put her feet up and got comfy.

When the doctor released Araceli to go home, Alice got the discharge instructions. She turned to Araceli. “Want to come home with me for a few days?”

Araceli, still weak as Canadian salsa, nodded.

So Alice took Araceli home to the beige house in suburbia and put her to bed in Kate’s old room, now the study. She plumped her pillows and brought her soup—Campbell’s chicken noodle—and made her drink enough water to float a Carnival Cruise liner. She brought her medications. Then she sat down by Araceli, her little white dog hopping up there as well.

“That’s Ellipsis, my poodle,” Alice said. “Hey. Araceli. I … worry about your health and your … driving. And are you still … illegal?”

Araceli turned away from Alice. “I need sleep now.”

“Okay. Let’s start over.”

Araceli said nothing, stroking the dog.

“Girl,” Alice went on, “I don’t care if you’re illegal. I don’t even care that much if you’re driving without a license. Well, maybe a smidge.”

Araceli’s stomach tightened. There had to be a “but” coming. With these Americans, there was always a “but” or an “except.” She imagined Lady Liberty, torch in hand, proclaiming, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”[_ ]Araceli had memorized this for Citizenship class. “[_The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” _]Then Lady Liberty put her hands on her hips.[ “Except for the Mexicans.] [_I don’t want them! Give me everyone else, but not the Mexicans!”]

She curled herself into a ball around the fluffy white dog.

Alice left the room.

Araceli napped, then woke and turned on the TV. Her favorite telenovela, [_La Doña, _]blared while she plotted her escape. She’d find Alice’s phone—Araceli couldn’t afford a cell phone—and call Enrique. He’d pick her up. Easy. Right?

Alice tapped at the door, making Araceli jump, and entered with two women—women Araceli knew.

First came Julie Bowers, the French teacher from Garden Beach College. Julie rushed in, her wild gold hair flying around her like a halo, and grabbed Araceli’s hands in her strong warm ones, then smothered her in a huge hug. “Oh, Araceli! You poor thing! I’m so sorry you’re sick. Long time no see, Sweetie.”

Araceli sat very still, feeling like she was wrapped in an angel’s wings. Was it Christmas yet?

Then in came big, tall Georgette Jones, the voice and speech teacher with the 1000-watt smile and a nova-bright aura that filled giant conference halls. She boomed, “Araceli! My God, it’s good to see you, my dear. Look at you, all grown up!” She held out her smooth, dark arms to Araceli. “Gimme some sugar!”

Araceli couldn’t speak, enveloped in another lovely hug.

Well. Maybe she didn’t need to escape. Yet.

Alice brought in cheese and crackers, sparkling cider, and two extra chairs. Then she, Georgette, and Julie sat in a row and studied Araceli, huddled under quilts.

“What do you think?” Georgette asked the other two.

“Remember when Kate was little and she got sick?” Alice said.

The other two laughed. “Same with my Jenny,” said Georgette.

They still studied her like three wise owls, turning their heads first one way and then the other, in unison.

“I’m not little,” a nervous Araceli blurted out.

The three wise owls kept staring, like three golden owls on that tree at Richandowe’s.

No. Like the Three Wise Women of Christmas.

Then, without warning, those Three Wise Women pounced on her all at once, laughing, Georgette with a hair brush in her hand, Julie with a makeup kit, and Alice with wiggly hands. It turned out that Alice was really good at shoulder massage, Georgette was magic with taming long, messy hair, and Julie could make the sickest person look camera ready with blush and mascara. Araceli, initially stiff, submitted to their ministrations. Alice put on some bouncy Beyoncé music, and busted some moves with Julie, then swung Araceli up to join them. Araceli just swayed, but Georgette did a shimmy so awesome that Araceli wished for a video camera.

Dancing with these women, just being with them was such fun.

For a second.

Araceli stopped swaying. “What time is it? What day is it? I feel better. I need to get to work. Oh, God. Do I still have a job?”

Georgette said, “Hun, it’s eight o’clock at night. Surely you don’t clean houses at night.”

Araceli froze. “No.”

“What job do you do at night then?” the Three Wise Women said in unison, exchanging furtive glances.

“I told you I need money. A lot of money.” Araceli got up and grabbed her pants.

Julie said, “Sweetie. What’s going on? You aren’t in any shape to be working. Especially a night shift.” She grimaced at Alice and Georgette. “Or … whatever.”

Araceli was still dressing, her head swimming.

Georgette came and laid a hand on her arm. “Hun, Hun, Hun. Talk to us. Talk to us.” Georgette could talk the pants off a frog. “Surely you can get time off for a serious illness. No boss is that mean.”

Araceli shook her head vehemently.

“Could you tell us where you work so we can call in sick for you?”

Julie sat on the bed by her. “We won’t tell your boss anything—about … your … legal status or anything. We’ll just say you’re sick.”

Alice said, “We’ll get you a doctor’s note if you need one. We’ll do whatever it takes to help you keep your … job. Oh.” Alice hit her forehead with her palm. She held out her cell phone. “Here, Araceli. Sorry. Call them yourself.”

Araceli took the phone and then melted down onto the bed, wailing, “Calling them won’t help. You can’t help me. No one can help me.” She burst into tears, crying hard, sobbing and then coughing. Julie got her a drink, and Ellipsis climbed onto her lap to lick her face.

The three older women looked worried.

Georgette cringed. “Hun. Are you in some kind of trouble? We’re good at busting trouble.”

Julie said, “It doesn’t matter what kind of trouble. Right, girls?”

“Right.” Alice sucked in a breath.

Araceli barely heard this through her tears. “How can you three be so nice to me when you know I’m … I’m … I’m … illegal?”

The Three Wise Women raised fists in the air. “Venus Warriors unite!” A tribute to their lasting bond from the 2003 Garden Beach Community College production of the faculty-and-student-written Venus Monologues. That bond, cemented at monologue practices, meant that in her time of trouble, these other women had rushed across several states to young, naïve, newly-immigrated Araceli’s rescue.

The room got quiet, the older women nudging each other, looking uncomfortable.

Julie broke the silence. “Hey. Did I ever tell you girls about the time I did phone sex in college? Made me a pot of money between classes. Pretty funny, too. This one guy insisted on pretending he was a rhino and I was his unicorn playmate. Another guy wanted me to read him a list of adjectives in a sultry voice. ‘Lovely, lusty, smooth, silky, sleek, salacious, shiny, sweaty, raucous, ravenous, rapacious, fiery, furry, fluffy, growling, sharky.’” She stopped with a faraway look in her eyes. “Can’t remember the rest. He emailed the list to me. I may still have it.”

Everybody laughed, except Araceli, whose eyes were like saucers.

Georgette confessed, “Well, I dated quite a few wealthy old men in my youth, and not for the privilege of looking at their saggy tummies and growly jowls up close.” She held up two bronze hands with four gorgeous rings adorning them. “These all came from that time. Life insurance, if you know what I mean.”

Alice said, “Uh, I sold stolen cosmetics for two weeks in college—before I found out about the scam.”

Their attention went to Araceli, who looked horrified.

Julie said, “Sooooo, do you have some funny story about making a buck, Araceli?”

Araceli burst out, “Wow. I thought all college professors are so—you know—uh, academic.”

Georgette prodded, “Hun, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done, other than run away to Texas and make us rescue you back in 2003?”

Araceli shook her head. “Oh, thank you for that. What a terrible time. Texas was too exciting for me. I have a very dull life since then. I just work and work and work some more. I need to save money, a lot of money.”

“A lot of money?” Julie elbowed Alice and slid her eyes at her.

Araceli said, “Yes, I want my own store in Santa Ana, but, but, but …” She tried to stop the tears, then blurted, “Somebody rented it already and my two jobs are supposed to make enough money to start the business. But now … Jacob, he …” Tears spilled over again.

Julie jumped in. “Who’s Jacob? Is he your … pimp?”

Alice slapped Julie on the leg. “Julie! Tact.”

Araceli said, “Pimp? What’s a pimp?”

Alice used the translator app on her phone to show Araceli the word in Spanish, and Araceli burst out laughing. “Pimp? I have no pimp!” She laughed (and coughed) so hard, the women seemed worried. Finally, she calmed down. “I work in the department store, Richandowe’s at night. I’m a restocking clerk!”

“Oooh.” The Three Wise Women exchanged a look of relief.

“But Jacob is making me work, even if I’m sick.”

Georgette said, “So who’s this Jacob guy and where can we find him and beat him up?”

Then the whole story poured out of Araceli, starting with the broken ornaments and ending with her blacking out in Jacob’s house.

Julie whistled. Alice bit her knuckle.

Georgette said, “Wait. Who told Jacob about your legal status?”

Araceli said, “I … don’t know.”

Alice eyed her. “But you have a suspicion. I know you, Araceli. I can see it in your face.”

“Well, there is one person who knows. I don’t know why I told him. I wish I hadn’t.”

“Who?” all Three Wise Women asked, their eyes big.

Araceli sighed. “Quito Barzaga. I know him from college, and now he works at Richandowe’s, too. Ms. Chalmers knows him.”

“Call me Alice, dear,” Alice said. “Hmm. I had Quito in class. He’s a charmer, but he doesn’t seem the type to blab such a big secret.”

“I know,” Araceli said wistfully.

Another meaningful look passed between the Three Wise Women. Trying to keep up with all their knowing looks made Araceli dizzy. She sank back into the pillows.

Julie said, “One last question. Are you sure Jacob told both your workplaces about your status, and are you sure you’ve lost both your jobs?”

“No. But he said he would tell them, and I would never work again.”

Georgette stood tall. “Like hell.”

Then the women tiptoed out of the room, and Araceli had the best, longest sleep she had had for ages.

***

When Araceli woke the next morning, she heard voices from the dining room. When she got downstairs, there were Alice, Julie, and Georgette, already seated at the sunny dining table. They looked as fresh as daisies, bright-eyed and dressed like teachers.

“Hi.” Araceli rubbed her eyes. “Are you all going to class today?”

“No, silly, it’s Saturday. Also winter break.” Julie hopped up and hugged Araceli, then ushered her to the table.

Alice poured her orange juice and gave her some pills. “French toast or eggs?”

Araceli was really hungry. “Uh. I—”

“Both it is, then.” Alice handed her a plate, which made Araceli think of Dulce Maria. “Excuse me, Alice. Could I call my landlady? She’ll worry about me.”

“Oh, sure.” Alice showed her the phone.

When Araceli returned after her call, the Three Wise Women had moved their dishes to make room for a big poster board in the middle of the table. Astonished, Araceli ran to the other side of the table. “What’s this?”

“Just what it says, Hun. Get Araceli a Green Card.” Georgette ran her magenta-nailed finger down the list under that promising heading. “I emailed my friend Buddy, the immigration lawyer, and here are your options.”

Julie chimed in, “Yeah. Easiest one: Have a business sponsor you. What do you think? Maybe Richandowe’s will take pity on you and provide a sponsorship.”

Araceli shook her head. “I’ve only worked for them a few weeks. But I worked for Shiny Zone for eleven years.”

“Okay. We’ll ask Shiny Zone.” Georgette made a notation on the poster.

Julie went on. “Or you could start a business that employs Americans, but that’s for entrepreneurs. It costs a lot of money.”

Alice said, “Hmm. It’s way too late for amnesty. You have to apply for that in your first year here. Or a related U.S. citizen could petition for you. Do you have any relatives who are citizens?”

Araceli shook her head. “My uncle and cousin died. My cousin Veronica got a green card, but I don’t know where she is. She took off to get away from Jorge Lopez.”

The Three Wise Women nodded sagely. They knew Veronica’s abusive husband.

“I don’t blame her. What a scumbag,” Georgette said. “Anyway, that route takes many years. Not for you, Hun.”

Julie said, “Right. But look here. Under the provisional unlawful presence waiver, any U.S. citizen can claim they can’t live without you and get you a green card.”

From the kitchen, Alice yelled, “That would be me! I need her badly!”

“Unfortunately, this seems to many like an immigration trap. You’d have to return to Mexico, maybe for good.” Georgette looked glum.

Araceli shook her head. “Oh, no.”

Georgette said, “Jeez. This next one. Not sure I can sanction you getting abused, battered, sexually violated or harassed just for a green card.”

Everyone said, “What?”

“You heard me.” Georgette huffed. “If an illegal alien is a victim of trauma and can afford to sue the perpetrator, the government hands out automatic green cards. Jeez Louise.”

“Ugh.” Alice sat down with her coffee. “So for a normal, healthy, untraumatized Mexican person, getting a green card …”

“… requires help from the angels.” Georgette stood and started undoing Araceli’s slept-on braids.

“Or Three Wise Women like you,” Araceli said, making six wise eyes roll.

Georgette shook her head. “Man, you can’t even get legal by marrying an American anymore.”

Julie shrugged. “Too bad. I had some cute, single babes in my classes this fall.”

Araceli cocked her head. “You have babies in your college class?”

“No, babes. Dudes. Handsome guys.” Alice laughed at Araceli’s face. “Don’t worry. We won’t marry you off. No one deplores a bad marriage to a handsome idiot like me.”

“And me.” Georgette yanked the brush through Araceli’s hair.

“Ai!”

“So, are we clear on our tasks?” Alice said, gathering plates to take to the sink. “I’ll track down Quito Barzaga.”

Georgette said, “I’ll call Buddy and find out if we could take Jacob to court for extortion.”

Araceli gasped. Court sounded like the law, and Araceli always steered clear of the law.

Julie said, “I’ll check on that business sponsorship and … anything else?”

Araceli raised her hand, like she was in a classroom.

“Sweetie, I’m sorry.” Julie poked Alice and Georgette. “Girls, we’ve been hogging the floor. Araceli, please speak.”

Araceli pointed at the list. “I … I saved some money to rent my shop. A lot of money.”

“Oh, honey, that’s great. How much?” Alice asked, checking her cell phone.

Araceli brightened. “$29,479.56. I could have saved more but my uncle took most of my money until he died in 2012.”

The women blinked.

Alice whistled. “In four years you saved that much? Wow.”

Georgette’s eyes popped. “Good for you, Hun.”

Julie said, “See what we could all do without a cell phone bill?”

Araceli got her hopes up, “Can that money help me buy a business to get a green card?”

Julie shook her head very slowly. “Sweetie, you’ve done an amazing job saving money as a house cleaner and a stock clerk, but you’re gonna need a little more than $29,479.56 to get a green card as an entrepreneur.”

Araceli sat up straight. “How much do I need? I’m a good worker. I’ll get more jobs.”

Georgette sighed. “Half a million dollars.”

5

That afternoon, Araceli felt better enough to go to Richandowe’s with Alice. They trooped into the shinily decorated store with Araceli’s stomach doing flip-flops. At the personnel office, Alice nudged Araceli to ask the gum-chewing girl at the desk about her job. The girl called her superior, a dumpy man named Mr. Adams. He showed the women into his office and looked up Araceli’s name, then shook his head at Alice. “I’m sorry. Ms. Martinez here has been terminated. It says here she’s illegal—doesn’t have a proper work visa. Correct?”

“Grrr. Jacob,” steamed Araceli.

“She speaks English,” Alice said. “Talk to her.”

Mr. Adams said loudly to Araceli, “I’m sorry, Miss. Corporate policy says you need the correct visa.”

“She’s not deaf,” Alice said. “Well, then. She’ll need her paycheck.”

“Are you kidding? She’s lucky we aren’t prosecuting her. She was working here illegally. We won’t pay her.”

“What?” the women cried.

He shrugged. “Look. If corporate did decide to pay an undocumented worker, which is unlikely, it’d take time. Weeks. Months. Don’t count on it.”

“You’ll be hearing from us.” Alice steered Araceli toward the office door. Then she turned back, standing tall. “Mr. Adams. Could this store take its showy Christmas spirit seriously and consider sponsoring Araceli to get a green card? She’s done excellent work for you. You could personally decide to be a mensch and really help a hard-working woman, make an investment in humanity. In the Christmas spirit.”

Mr. Adams looked blank. Then he said, “No way.” He laughed aloud and shut his office door behind them.

Alice turned and stuck out her tongue at the closed door. “Like hell.”

Araceli stuck hers out, too. “Like hell.”

Giggling, they returned to the outer office, where Alice asked about Quito’s hours.

The gum-chewing secretary said, “Oh, Quito quit a few days ago. Too bad. So cute.”

The two of them wandered down the mall, since Alice had shopping to do. They stopped in See’s Candies for several pound boxes. “For my family. They’re so hard to buy for,” Alice told everyone who would listen. After Alice and Araceli ate their sample candies, they stopped in the card store for a few fanciful Christmas cards. Alice said, “I swear I’ll send these today. I swear it on this stack of dark chocolate boxes.” They stopped in a shoe store for Alice to get two pairs of fancy Nikes. “For my husband, who thinks he only needs cowboy boots.”

Soon, Araceli started coughing. She sat on a bench in the middle of the mall while Alice went to buy drinks. Right across from the bench, there was a line a mile long of children waiting for a turn on Santa’s lap. Cameras were flashing and children were crying, but through all that, Araceli heard a voice she recognized.

“Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas! What the feck would you like for Christmas, Miss Awesome Socks?”

Santa looked pretty young and skinny for his post, with extremely dark eyes and a very smooth face. And there was no mistaking that particular baritone voice and Spanish accent.

With mixed feelings, Araceli got up and made her way through about a million shoppers, cutting through the line of mothers and strollers, heading for the velvet rope Santa sat behind. Was that really him? The guy who’d quit working when she had, maybe in solidarity with her? The guy whose handsome face and crappy grammar she’d missed all month? The guy who had probably let slip the biggest secret of her life to the absolute wrong person who had used the information to destroy her? She stopped in her trajectory towards Quito and froze. Thank God she hadn’t gotten all the way to his lap. His lap? Why was she thinking about his lap? She, an adult? Imagine, hard-working, adult Araceli Martinez sitting on anyone’s lap!

Even if he did call her Miss Awesome Socks.

Santa saw her and waved. She smiled, waved back, and then ran, well, slowly swam through a vast sea of screaming children, skinny teenagers, and over-spent mothers, back to the bench and Alice.

“Let’s go, Alice.” Araceli tugged on Alice’s coat sleeve.

Alice stayed put. “Sit down, Miss Pneumonia. You need a drink before we head home. Well, I do.”

Araceli slumped on the bench. “Please. I want to go home now. I don’t feel well.”

Alice noticed Araceli’s bright eyes and pink cheeks. “Fine. Let me gather my stuff.”

They’d started off down the mall toward the car when a Paco Rabanne breeze and a lot of noise churned up behind them, and Santa himself clunked up in his too-big boots to park in front of Araceli, stopping the women in their tracks. Santa’s fat tummy was askew, sagging in his belt. His long, fuzzy, red coat sleeves enveloped Quito’s hands completely.

“Araceli!” Gasping for breath, he tried to straighten his fur-trimmed cap. “And Ms. Chalmers! How are you?”

Araceli narrowed her eyes at white-bearded Quito. “How can you be Santa? You’re too young and small.”

Quito looked wounded. “I’m not small! I have muscles.” He held up his arms to flex them, dropping the too-long Santa pants legs, which bagged around his ankles.

The crowd that had gathered around them laughed hysterically.

“Araceli. I gotta get back to work. Can I see you later?” he begged, grabbing the pants again.

“You told everyone my secret,” she hissed.

He puffed up taller. “I did not.”

“Like hell.” Araceli stalked away, but Alice quickly wrote something on a slip of paper and handed it to Quito. “Come soon. This girl has pneumonia, and she’s lost both her jobs. She needs a friend.” She turned and sprinted after Araceli.

Quito called back to her, “‘Pneumollia’? Is that cancer? Hey, Araceli, come back! I’m your number one Stan, Sis! Hundo P!”

The crowd erupted in more howls as a worried Santa trucked back to his post.

6

After Araceli’s nap, she and Alice were having tea and Christmas sugar cookies—and ignoring the nagging green card poster. A knock sounded at Alice’s condo door. Jamey brought Quito to the dining room.

Quito entered fast, nervously shoving his dark hair off his handsome face. “Araceli! Are you sick? You look white like toast.”

Araceli stood up. “You mean white like a ghost, Quito. But why did you tell Jacob I’m illegal? I was trying to make extra money to start a business, and you ruined it! He … flamed … no. He fired me!”

Me? You’re his girlfriend. He got that information from you or your friends. Not me!”

Araceli narrowed her eyes at him. “Why would you believe that pendejo? Are you friends with him?”

“No. What the feck?”

“Well, I’m not his girlfriend. I hate his nuts.”

Alice bit her lip. “I think you mean his guts, Araceli.”

Araceli raised her voice. “Whatever. His nuts or his guts or his butts. I hate every part of him.”

Quito scowled. “You don’t live with him? Then why were you at his house, huh?”

Araceli yelled the loudest she’d ever yelled in her life. “I was cleaning it for FREE so he wouldn’t tell my secret! I cleaned six houses for his family for free every week!”

Quito “What? Plus your two jobs?”

“You heard me.” She started coughing.

“But that’s loco!”

Alice got up. “How about I make us some more tea? Anyone?”

The Latins had blazing eyes locked and hands at the ready like two gunslingers at high noon.

“Okay, then. More tea.” Alice left.

Quito shook his head and let his shoulders fall. “You look bad. What’s ‘pneumollia’? Are you dying?”

Pneumonia.” Araceli rolled her eyes. “A lung infection, and I’ll be fine when you leave.”

Quito put a hand to his chest. “Araceli. I didn’t tell that cabrón anything. I swear on my mother’s grave.”

Araceli considered. “Are you—?”

“Aww. Is your mother dead, Quito?” Alice said, sweeping in with a plate of fresh ginger cookies and lemon bars. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no. My mother is in Havana, cooking for our family of twelve. I’m number five. ‘Quito’ is the name of a fifth child.” He sat down at the table.

“He doesn’t know what ‘grave’ means,” Araceli told Alice.

He shrugged. “But I know Jacob fired me the night after he saw you and me together at his house. Now do you believe me?”

Araceli’s face softened. “Maybe. Then who told him?”

Quito absently took a ginger cookie and wolfed it down. “I don’t know. But believe me, Araceli, I would never tell anyone something private about you because you’re so, so, so …” He stopped and stared at her like a lost puppy. “Especial.” Then he said very softly, “Me. Number one Stan, Sis. I ship you, hundo P.”

Araceli’s starch suddenly melted away. She sat down and saw Quito in a new light. Or maybe it was just in the multi-colored glow of the large Christmas tree Alice had decorated to within an inch of its life with big lights, colorful ornaments, shiny garlands, and tinsel.

“Alice, would you please make us some more tea?”

Alice patted her hand. “Sure, kid. But what’s ‘hundo P’?”

***

Alice invited Quito to dinner, and he accepted, spending the whole meal watching Araceli, who kept glancing at him between bites of spaghetti and conversations with Alice’s family.

At the end of the meal, Araceli picked up empty plates and followed Alice to the kitchen.

“I’ll clean the dishes.” Araceli rolled up her sleeves.

“You will not. You’re too sick to wash dishes.” Alice rolled Araceli’s sleeves back down.

“I’m better. And I’m not paying you, so I should help.” Araceli rolled a sleeve up.

“You want to help me?” Alice turned Araceli around and pushed her toward the dining room. “You go entertain Quito. My boys have to do homework, and I have a meeting with Georgette and Julie to prepare for. See? Poor Quito’s checking his watch. Go talk to him or take him outside for a walk.”

“It’s cold outside,” Araceli tried.

Alice swatted her on the butt. “You go forgive that guy right this minute. He adores you. Can’t you see it? You can. I know you can. Stop trying to fight it.”

So Araceli and Quito went for a walk around the block, with Araceli bundled up against the sixty-degree Orange County evening air.

They walked slowly, remarking on the Christmas decorations on all the houses.

“So Araceli, which house is better? The one with only white lights, the one with blue lights, or the one with all the colors?”

Araceli stopped and looked at him. “You have to ask me that? All the colors, of course! Blue feels too cold, and white lights are just boring.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Boring as feck.” He grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

A spark passed between them at that moment, and she whipped her head around to look at him.

“What?” he said.

“What?” Boy are you handsome. She flushed. “I think you mean ‘Boring as heck.’”

“Okay. Boring as heck.” He flashed that charming smile.

She let him keep hold of her hand for the rest of the walk, which became quite long, and involved several detours before they wound up back at Alice’s house.

***

Araceli and Quito were walking up Alice’s steps with their joined hands swinging merrily when a voice came from behind them.

“Araceli!”

Araceli turned. “Dulce Maria!”

Dulce Maria walked up frowning. “I thought you were sick, Araceli.”

“I was. I am.” The coughs she’d been suppressing during their romantic walk came pouring out now.

Dulce Maria shoved a bundle at Araceli. “Here are some tamales and your mail. I can see you’re tired of me, so I’ll go home.”

“No, no!” Araceli said between coughs, but Quito ushered her inside for a drink.

They found Georgette, Julie, and Alice in the dining room with the Get Araceli a Green Card poster before them.

“Hey, you two.” Georgette winked at Julie. “Come and sit down.” She handed Araceli a mug of hot tea.

Araceli sipped it. “Do you have news?”

The Three Wise Women did not throw confetti.

Julie pushed back her golden halo of hair. “I’m afraid Shiny Zone won’t sponsor you. I reminded them what a faithful employee you had been all those years, but they wouldn’t budge. Since you used a fake ID to work for them, they’re still pretty angry.”

“I …” Araceli sank into a chair. Quito took her hand. Ellipsis jumped up on her lap.

Georgette spoke up. “Afraid my news isn’t any better, Hun. Yes, what Jacob did to you was extortion, which is a felony, since he threatened to expose a secret that would make you lose your livelihood.” She sighed. “The bad news is that it’s pretty much your word against his, unless we can trick one of his relatives into confessing.”

Alice pointed at the poster. “What if we call that bullying in the workplace? Could we sue and get her a green card under this provision about being traumatized or abused?”

A hopeful look passed among the women.

Georgette said, “Good point.”

Araceli felt relieved. A plan was forming. “Um. Don’t you need a lawyer to sue?”

The women nodded.

“Aren’t lawyers expensive?” Araceli squeaked.

The women nodded.

“Okay. I guess if I have to.” Araceli sighed and looked down at the pile of mail. The letter on top was very official-looking, from Los Angeles County. She quickly tore it open, then passed it to Georgette. “What’s this?”

Georgette adjusted her reading glasses. “What? This is a bill from L.A. County for $25,000 in back taxes. Property taxes. On a house in Los Angeles.”

“A house?” Julie peeked at the envelope. “Who is this addressed to? Anybody know an Inez Beatriz Aracely Martinez Gutierrez?”

Araceli dropped her teacup, splattering tea all over her front and the floor. Alice ran for a towel and Quito helpfully blotted her chest with a napkin.

Wow. Her full name. The name she hadn’t used for ages, since she’d entered this country, in fact. She hated the names Inez and Beatriz. “No! That letter must be for someone else,” she protested.

“But your name is pretty close to this.” Georgette gave Araceli a teacher look. “Inez Beatriz [_Aracely Martinez _]Gutierrez?”

“Well, yes.” Araceli cringed. “See, I had to hide from immigration some way. So I just put part of my name on the fake ID. And changed the spelling un poco.”

The Three Wise Women exchanged an exasperated look.

“What else haven’t you told us, Araceli?” Julie asked. “Do you own this house?”

“No! I don’t know why I got this letter. I never had money to buy a house.”

“Well, it’s in your name,” Georgette supplied. “Unless this is fake. Let me look up this address.” She did a Zillow search, and there was the house at the address, bright as day, smack in the middle of the City of Angels.

“Oh, God. I owe Los Angeles $25,000 in taxes?” Araceli wailed.

“Maybe,” Alice said.

“Road trip,” someone said with a yawn. “Monday morning.”

7

Sunday, Quito had a day off from being Santa at the mall, so he came and stole Araceli. To take her mind off her status, money and job woes, Quito took her to Newport Beach, where they walked up and down the beach barefoot, getting their toes wet. For lunch, they ate black beans and oxtail stew at Felix’s Restaurant in Orange. Then they came back to Alice’s house to make spicy Christmas cookies and watch White Christmas on TV with Alice. Later, on the sofa, right next to the fragrant Christmas tree, Araceli fell asleep on Quito’s shoulder. They were still there, snuggled up together under an afghan on Monday morning when Alice came down the stairs and poked Araceli.

“Rise and shine, sleepyheads.”

Araceli shot up from the sofa. “What time is it? Where should I be?”

“Go freshen up. Julie and I are running you up to Norwalk this morning to the L.A. County Hall of Records.”

Araceli ripped herself from Quito’s octopus-like grasp to go change clothes.

“I’m coming, too,” said Quito. “To feck with Santa Claus.”

At the Hall of Records, they located the deed for the house, which indeed had Araceli’s full name on it.

“Inez Beatriz Aracely Martinez Gutierrez. What the feck?” Quito said.

“Yeah, what the feck?” Araceli’s voice rose. “No one in this country even knows my full name. Not even Veronica.”

Julie said, “When was this home bought?”

More digging brought up the last date of sale: July, 2000. Price: $145,000.

“But I wasn’t even in this country then,” wailed Araceli.

Quito put a comforting arm around her.

Julie said, “Hmm. Who would have bought property and put it in your name? They had to forge your signature.”

Araceli shrugged.

Julie said, “Let’s get in the car and go look at this place.”

They drove to downtown L.A. and found the sweet little house. Actually, the smallest, messiest, ugliest house on a very spiffy block. The yard and roof were a complete disgrace, and the empty house needed painting. One of the well-maintained homes next door had a FOR SALE sign listing a price of $520,000.

Alice saw a neighbor leaving his house. “Excuse me. How long has this house been unoccupied?”

The man rubbed his chin. “Just a few months. Last renters stayed for several years. But when they wanted to move out, they couldn’t find the owner, so they just left the key with me.”

Araceli said, “Oh. You knew the owner?”

The man nodded. “Yeah, Rogelio something. Bought this house in 2000 as a rental, and now looks like he’s abandoned it. Rentals always bring the other house values on the block down. We neighbors’ll have to clean up the yard again to help Joe sell his house.”

Light dawned for Araceli. “Uncle Rogelio bought this for me? True, he knew my whole name, but why did he never say he bought this for me?”

“Surprise gift?” asked Alice.

“No way. That big cabrón.” Araceli scowled.

“Hmm. Tax shelter,” murmured Julie. “You owe taxes from several years. Maybe Uncle Rogelio bought this house using your money and put it in your name to keep tax collectors from coming after him. He probably planned to sell it to your cousin later, but he died too soon.”

Back in the car, Araceli put her head back and closed her eyes. Had her uncle had any papers when he died? Where? Did he have a record of buying and renting this house? The man was such a drunk that she couldn’t imagine him keeping any sort of records.

In the front seat, Alice whispered to Julie, “Man, that house is a wreck. What if it’s not worth selling? Wonder how much Araceli owes the bank on the mortgage? And which bank?”

How much Araceli owes the bank? She now owed more money to more people? All her hard-earned savings would soon be gone just like that—for lawyers and taxes and houses. Not for her dream business. She spoke up. “Alice, Julie, thank you for all your help. But could you please drop me at my home in Santa Ana now?”

They did.

8

Araceli spent the next few days with Dulce Maria, making hundreds of tamales and a dozen Rosca de Reyes, or Three Kings Bread, each with figs, quince, cherries, and orange peel—and a plastic Baby Jesus. While Dulce Maria hummed and chopped fruit, Araceli tried to figure out how she’d gone from being excited about starting a new business here to suddenly owing all her money to pay taxes and a mortgage on a house she couldn’t sell.

Uncle Rogelio the Cabrón. That’s how.

The phone rang several times, but Araceli only picked it up once—for a bank representative to ask her to refinance her mortgage. Scared, she hung up. After that, she didn’t answer it.

Quito came by twice, to bring her Christmas cookies and watch telenovelas with her.

On Friday, she sent the huge tax check to L.A. County and cried. She never found any papers belonging to her uncle, but she knew the banks would find her now and demand their money for the house. And she was almost broke. How could she pay them? If she couldn’t find work soon, she would have to go back to Mexico. She would miss Quito so much. And California. And Alice and Julie. And Georgette calling her “Hun.” And Dulce Maria. She went to sleep crying.

***

In the morning, she woke feeling much improved, hardly coughing any more. It was Saturday, Christmas Eve. She’d made up her mind. She packed a bag with most of her clothes and put it in the closet. She’d leave bright and early the day after Christmas to go back to Mexico with her last few thousand dollars. Damn it. The bank would not get all of her money.

While she was eating a piece of Three Kings Bread for breakfast, the phone rang. Dulce Maria and Enrique were out. Araceli ignored it.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Araceli froze. She peeked out the front window. It was Alice.

“I know you’re in there, Araceli. Open the door!”

She did. “Alice, I’m going to Mexico. Thanks for everything.” She tried to close the door, but Julie ran up laughing and stuck her foot in it.

Georgette was sitting in the driver’s seat of the car at the curb. “Come on, Hun. We have something to show you.”

Araceli climbed in the car to find Quito already there, grinning from ear to ear.

“Road trip, Miss Awesome Socks!” he yipped.

Georgette pointed the car north, and soon they reached the crappy little house in Los Angeles that promised to make Araceli a pauper.

Except the little house looked very different. Its roof was repaired. Its lawn was green. New plants grew in the flower beds. The sidewalk leading to the front door had been patched, and the house itself had been painted a bright yellow.

“What the feck?” Araceli said. “Uh, heck?”

“Come inside, girl.” Julie led Araceli inside, where each wall had a new coat of paint and the living area had new carpet. The kitchen and bathroom tile looked freshly scrubbed. She looked out the back window.

“Back yard is still a mess,” said Georgette. “We’ll get the fence fixed next week. But the structure here is sound. My contractor brother had it checked for termites and structural problems. It’s good, Hun.” She patted the wall by her.

The house seemed to wink back.

“What the heck?” Araceli repeated. “Did you guys do this?”

The Three Wise Women plus Quito bowed.

“Venus Warriors unite!” Julie said.

“At your servant,” Quito said.

Knock, knock.

They opened the door to the neighbor they’d seen before.

“Hi. I’m Tom. Who’s the new owner?”

Araceli shook his hand. “I’m Rogelio’s niece.”

Tom nodded. “This place looks great. The whole neighborhood thanks you for cleaning it up. We’ve worked really hard the last few years to spiff up this block, and home values have taken off, like two or three times their value of twenty years ago. Thanks for helping us.”

Julie said, “How much did Rogelio charge to rent this house? Do you know?”

Tom thought. “No idea. I do remember him complaining how First Reechinyerpokit Bank had screwed him over, inflating his interest rate.”

They drove back to Orange County, landing at Alice’s house on Christmas Eve.

They ate Dulce Maria’s tamales for dinner. After some spice cookies and egg nog, Georgette went home. But Quito, Araceli, and Julie attended a midnight service with Alice and afterward, fell asleep on Alice’s living room floor in sleeping bags.

In the morning, Georgette returned, bringing her family to join Alice’s family and friends as they loudly exchanged presents and made a big wrapping paper mess around the gaudy Christmas tree.

Amidst this craziness, Quito dropped to his knee before Araceli.

Everybody got quiet.

He said, “Araceli, I love you. I’m your number one Stan, Sis. I ship you, hundo P.” He produced a wrapped box—too large for a ring—and held it out to her. “Will you marry me?”

Araceli’s heart stopped. She fanned herself. “Uh. I …”

The Three Wise Women shouted, “Go for it, girl. He’s no cabrón.”

Julie let out a whoop. “Freaking A! I totally forgot that’s another path to a green card! It seemed too ridiculous to even mention before, but it’s on the list.”

There were quizzical looks around the room.

Julie erupted, “You can just marry a Cuban! Courtesy of the anti-Communist Congress of the 1960s!”

Everybody squealed with relief. Alice got the Christmas champagne from the fridge and popped the cork.

But Araceli frowned. These Three Wise Women had taught her well. In the middle of all the hubbub, she pulled herself up tall like a true Venus Warrior. “Quito. I don’t want to marry you just to get a green card. That’s not right.”

“Oh, come on.” Quito fell to the carpet in a gesture of surrender. “I love you, Miss Awesome Socks! I’m your turkey! Hundo P!”

“I’m sorry.” Araceli held fast, and went home after Christmas brunch. Determined to keep her dignity, she took the big suitcase out from under the bed and finished filling it with her stuff.

9

The next day, Julie came to the Casabuena home and knocked.

Araceli, holding the handle of a large suitcase, opened the front door.

“Araceli, listen! Listen!” Julie played a voice message on her phone for Araceli.

“Hi, Julie. Henry from Shiny Zone here. I’m so sorry. It seems one of our staff somehow figured out Araceli was illegal. Rather than talk to me, she went to Araceli’s other boss at Richandowe’s, and together they hatched a plan to get free cleaning services from her. I suspect they were going to ramp it up and get money as well. We didn’t know about this until you told us. Now we’ve fired her. I’m off for vacation, but please tell Araceli that to make amends for this obvious harassment, our company will be glad to sponsor her for a green card. We’re already inundated by unhappy customers missing her housecleaning services. She’s literally our best worker. We need her.”

Araceli’s mouth formed a giant O. She dropped the handle of the suitcase.

Julie let out a shriek. “Isn’t that great?”

“Are you staying?” Dulce Maria came to the door, and all three of them danced around the front yard.

Then Araceli suddenly stopped. “No. I can’t do it. Sorry.”

The other women slumped in defeat. “Really, Araceli? Why not?”

***

Alice and Georgette joined them for lunch at a local café, where everyone tried to persuade Araceli to take one of her green card offers.

“Please, Araceli?” Alice pleaded. “Shiny Zone’s offer is wonderful! What’s gonna happen if you don’t take it?”

Araceli put her fork down and sat up straight. “Julie. Alice. Georgette. You’ve all been so wonderful to me. You’ve taught me to stand up for myself, to be a Venus Warrior. But this warrior has been cleaning houses for a long time. If I let Shiny Zone sponsor me, I have to clean more and more houses, maybe forever.” She shrugged. “I don’t want to.”

“I see your point, Hun.” Georgette patted Araceli’s hand. “So marry the boy and make him your slave. It worked for me.”

“Where’s my slave?” Julie mumbled. She snagged a newspaper from the next table in the café. “Hey. Says here, the President has a plan for foreigners to get immigration parole status as an entrepreneur, if they can invest at least $345,000 in a company that would grow rapidly and create at least ten American jobs in a low-income area.”

Araceli sighed. “Well, I owe everybody a lot of money, so forget that.”

Shaking their heads, the Three Wise Women took her to First Reechinyerpokit Bank, where Araceli found out she owed almost $100,000 on the little house in L.A.

Georgette said, “Wow. Awesome.”

“What’s awesome?” Araceli said, heart sinking. “$100,000? I owe that?” She wanted to cry.

Georgette grinned. “Hun, listen. Our realtor says you can sell the house for $450,000 and pay the old mortgage off with that. You’ll come out $350,000 ahead.”

The other women whooped, scaring the other bank customers.

“What?!? Oh! Wow!” Light dawned, and Araceli jumped for joy, making the bank teller smile.

The women trooped outside, where the sun was suddenly brighter, the day full of possibilities.

A thought struck Alice. “Araceli. Doesn’t this mean you can be an entrepreneur now, under the President’s new plan, and get immigration parole status?”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” shouted Araceli.

There was a group hug.

Araceli thought, Uncle Rogelio. You old buzzard. Was this really a tax shelter for you, or maybe a provision for my future? Who knows? But I’ll take it. Gracias, you old cabrón.

She said aloud, “And now I can marry Quito! Because I don’t need to.”

10

At their wedding brunch on January 6th, Araceli and Quito told Dulce Maria, Enrique, the Three Wise Women, and their families of their plans to sell the L.A. house and start a dress-making business, probably in Irwindale or Compton. The Santa Ana storefront would come later.

“Cheers to the happy couple!” Julie saluted with her champagne. “And cheers to Araceli! Last month, she had no way to become legal.”

“Right.” Araceli said, smoothing down her long, white lace dress, a gift from her three wise friends.

Alice raised her glass. “But now, a company is willing to sponsor her …”

Georgette raised hers. “A Cuban guy married her …”

Everyone cheered.

Quito raised his glass. “And she’s gonna be an entertainer.”

Entrepreneur. Yes.” Araceli nodded at Julie, Alice, and Georgette. “With the help of my Three Wise Women, I could be legal three different ways!”

Quito planted a kiss on her. “What the feck! It’s like magic. Alabaster!”

“Alakazam!” she laughed.

Quito remembered something. “Wait. Araceli, you never opened your Christmas present. The box I presented to you on Christmas Day.” He produced it.

Frowning, she tore the paper on the fancy, gold-wrapped box. It held two sparkly, purple, blown-glass peacock ornaments from Richandowe’s, complete with feathered tail fans. Smiling, she stood and slipped their tiny earring hooks into her ears, then danced around the table in her lovely lace dress, stopping in front of Quito. “Is this legal entrepreneur pretty now, Turkey Man?”

“Yes,” Quito cried, pulling her onto his lap. “Always, Miss Awesome Socks. You know I ship you, hundo P.”

“Quito. What is ‘hundo P’?” the Three Wise Women said in unison.

“Hundred percent!” Quito squeezed his bride, and everyone whooped with glee.

About the Author

Amy Gettinger lives in Orange County, California with her husband and her two piteous poodles under the shade of a very noisy old eucalyptus windrow full of crows and wild parrots. When she’s not writing novels or short stories, she’s creating Reader’s Theater plays and coaching a local senior group to perform them, complete with big bad wolf hats, feather boas and tiaras.

  • @AmyGettinger
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amygettinger.com

Also by Amy Gettinger

Novels (ebook format):

Roll with the Punches (2015)

[_Alice in Monologue Land _](2015)

***

Short Story Collection:

Kiss My Sweet Skull (2015)

It Doesn’t Show Signs of Stopping

In Love in the Limelight Series, #3.5

Geralyn Corcillo

1

“Dude! I cannot miss this plane.”

But Dan Allport didn’t seem concerned. Damp and muddy from his day’s adventures, he took a swig from his water bottle and returned it to the center console. “Sure you don’t want one? I’ve got an entire pack of water on the back seat.”

“I’m fine.” Tanya Diaz sat tall and straight in her seat, arms folded.

“Wow,” Dan said. “That was pretty well enunciated, seeing how hard you’re clenching your teeth.”

“Will you step on it? You’re going to make me miss my plane, Granny!”

“Make you miss your plane?” Dan’s brows shot up, as if he were just considering the option and finding it a delightful one.

“Dan …” she growled.

“Nice ….” Dan nodded as he smiled. “At least now I’m ‘Dan.’ Though ‘Dude’ and ‘Granny’ are cool, too.”

“My plane?” she warned.

He sighed. “As much as I would love to make you miss your flight, I’m going to get you there in plenty of time. You have forty minutes ‘til check-in, and we’re almost at La Tijera.”

“Just hurry.”

“You see all the traffic in front of us, right?”

“Why did you even take the freeway?”

Dan laughed. “Go to LAX on surface streets? Clearly, you’ve never been to L.A. before. Whereas I’ve lived here my whole life. So shut up.”

“I prefer to berate you.”

Dan nodded. “I get that.”

And oddly enough, Dan did get it.

He’d only met Tanya sixteen hours ago. As it turned out, though, they cared about the same people—Colin and Wendy—people who’d gotten themselves embroiled in one heck of a romantic entanglement.

So Dan and Tanya had come running from separate poles of the country to help out their friends. Well, practically separate poles. Dan had only driven fifteen minutes from Echo Park to Hollywood. But Tanya had hopped on a plane and flown in, all the way from New Orleans.

And from pretty much the instant Dan clapped eyes on Tanya and Tanya had looked right back, there’d been … something. A thrill, a buzz. An attraction. Something had sparked between them. All day long, as Dan had been traipsing across town and through the woods with Colin, trying to fix everything with Wendy, he’d been looking forward to seeing Tanya again.

But when Dan had finally made his way back to her at the end of the day, she had to go back to The Big Easy. One of the cheerleaders on her squad had gotten herself arrested for vandalizing the school. And Tanya had been the kid’s one call. She had to go.

So, with so much unexplored chemistry between them, Dan could see how giving in to bad temper was … well … easier.

As he pulled off the freeway onto La Tijera, his heart sank. They would be at the airport in about five minutes. Tanya would be out of the car and gone. But really, what was the big deal? He shouldn’t be so disappointed about missing out on time with a woman he’d barely met.

Right?

He needed to snap out of it. “Got everything?” But he asked as if he were reading a cue card. Badly.

“I’m all set.”

Dan shot her a quick glance.

Her voice that had been so ardent was suddenly small, her fiery temper all but gone out. She was concentrating on her phone, looking at the same map app she’d been glued to for the entire ride.

“We’re almost there,” Dan assured her quietly.

He turned onto Airport Boulevard.

Tanya nodded. “Well … thanks for driving me. Especially after the day you’ve had.”

“It’s been a great day,” he said, but without any pep. Without any inflection, actually.

“Yeah …” she agreed, just as monotone. “I’m glad it all worked out for them.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m really happy for them,” she added, but she sounded like Eeyore.

“Me, too.”

“Hey!” Tanya sat forward in the seat, looking at the bright sign up ahead. “Can you turn in here?”

“Burger King? I thought you were in a hurry.”

“Yeah. But … um … it’s different now that we’re out of traffic and I know we’re going to make it.” She pointed to the bright blue numbers of the dash clock. “I have half an hour. I think I want a shake before the flight.”

Dan shrugged, even as he bit down on an irrepressible smile. “Okay.” He didn’t mind spending another few minutes with Tanya. He didn’t mind at all.

After they drove thru and got her a Dr. Pepper shake, Dan headed back toward the road.

But Tanya spoke up again. “Can you maybe park a sec while I drink this? We have time.”

Dan pulled into a spot as Tanya sucked at the straw.

“Good?” he asked.

She nodded, swallowing. “It’s been a long day. I need the caffeine.”

“Long day?” he scoffed on a bark of laughter. “You spent the day with my mom. Eating chocolate and surfing the net, right?”

“Pam is a hoot,” Tanya said, nodding+. “And she can be way distracting. But worrying in an ensemble when you don’t know what’s going on is freaking exhausting.”

“Not the wait-around type, I’m guessing?”

Tanya shook her head. “I’m all about the action. Usually. Today was … strange.”

“Yeah ….”

“What about you?” Tanya piped up with determined brightness. “Your day has been legion, running around like Puck in the woods. Headed home to bed after you drop me off?”

Dan looked at her from across the front seat. “Uh … no. Definitely not to bed. I’ve got Worship.”

Tanya almost choked on her shake. “Church? You’re going to church on a Saturday night?”

Dan laughed. “Worship is the name of my jazz club.”

Tanya took another pull from her shake. “Why Worship?” But then she turned to face him fully. “Wait. Are you really a pastor? Pam was telling me how you marry people sometimes. But I thought you just had some online degree or something.”

“I’m an actual pastor,” he said. “Of sorts. Yeah, it’s through an online degree, but I had to get it. When Worship closes at one, I feed the people on Skid Row, the ones who show up out back. And I let them sleep in the warehouse. You wouldn’t believe what kind of regulations you can get around to do stuff like that in Los Angeles if you’re a religious leader of some sort.”

“So your jazz club, Worship. It’s kind of … your church, too?”

“You could look at it that way. The city does. And it’s damn helpful.”

Tanya nodded. “I know all about the red tape when you’re trying to help people. God, since I took over The Dorm, it’s like all I do is battle bureaucrats.”

“You must be good at it.” Dan gave her an assessing look. “Starting that shelter meant everything to Colin. He never would have left New Orleans to come after Wendy if he didn’t trust you with his life.”

“Please.” Tanya rolled her eyes. “He trusted me with running The Dorm.”

“Right,” Dan agreed. “His life. His heart and soul. Helping the troubled teens in the city who need a soft place to land.”

Tanya gave Dan a wicked smile. “He just knows I don’t back down from a fight. Not when it matters.”

Dan kept looking at her. “And I bet you win.”

She returned his penetrating gaze. “You and me, Dan? Our lives are kind of similar, you know? Helping out in poor parts of the inner cities. But I think we do it for different reasons. You want to help. You don’t make any money from it. But me? I was offered a job and I knew I’d kick ass at it.”

Dan raised his brows and angled his head. “I don’t doubt it. But I don’t think you give yourself enough credit for being a sap.”

She laughed. “A sap like you? I don’t think so.”

“I do. Colin told me today you used to be in sports news … and that the harassment was unreal.”

Tanya shrugged it off but she looked away. “Well, I decided to play into my sex appeal, after all, and coach cheer.”

“Yeah. But you didn’t use your smokin’ hot bod to climb the corporate ladder. You used it to work with underprivileged girls and make them strong and tough and confident. That was a hell of a choice. And now you’ve got a new job, running The Dorm.”

She shook her head. “Don’t go making me into an angel, Preacher Man.”

“Hey!” Dan laughed as he tried to defend himself. “I’m just reciting facts.”

“So, it’s a fact that I have a smokin’ hot bod?”

“Uh, yeah. Duh.”

Tanya shrugged. “When you’re right, you’re right. Be right back.” She hopped out of the car.

Dan watched her walk over to the trash can and throw out the empty cup. When she got back to the car, she slid into the passenger seat, leaned into him, and kissed him.

Maybe it was supposed to have been a quick kiss. Or a friendly kiss just to say hey, thanks for driving me to the airport. But Dan kissed her back. And it wasn’t quick or in any way motivated by carpool favors. He just really wanted to kiss her.

As he pulled her closer, Tanya wrapped her arms around his neck and shoulders. One of his hands slid up into her long, dark hair as she all but straddled him in the front seat of the car.

She nipped at his ear. “I’ve been wanting to do this since I first saw you this morning.”

“Way to drag your feet.”

She kissed him again, and they fell against the driver’s side door.

“I wish you didn’t have to go yet,” he murmured into her hair.

Tanya looked at the time on the dash. “Me, too. But I can’t miss this plane.” She sighed, then levered herself off him and sat back in her seat.

“Okay,” he said, deciding to smile as he put the car in gear. “But just to be clear, you’re the one who jumped me, Cinderella.”

Tanya giggled. “I know. I just made out in a car with a guy who bought me a shake.”

Dan considered this. “Well, a lot of people do say that hanging out with me is like watching a John Hughes movie.”

Tanya started laughing again as they stopped at a red light.

“Laugh it up, fuzzball.” And he reached across the seat, grabbed her by the front of her shirt, and pulled her in for another kiss.

The light turned green and he let her go.

Tanya tried to catch her breath. “That … that was Star Wars.”

“Empire, actually. But I’m multi-layered like that.”

He pulled up to her terminal and stopped the car at the curb. “Good luck with your cheerleader. Vivecka?”

She nodded. “Vivecka Jones. Thanks. I was figuring I’d think about her during the flight, decide how to handle everything.” She looked right at him. “But now I bet I’ll be thinking about you the whole flight.”

And just like that, they were on each other again, kissing like two teenagers in the last few seconds before curfew.

He finally pushed her away. “Safe flight,” he said.

“Thanks, Preacher Dan.”

He groaned. “At least call me Thelonious Dan if you have to give me a nickname.”

“Thelonious? That’s some jazz guy, right?”

“You could say that.”

“Well, where I come from, the jazz is Dixieland.” Tanya got out of the car and slung her bag over her shoulder. She peered back in through the window. “See you on the flip side, Dixieland Dan.”

The next afternoon, his phone buzzed with a text.

Hey Dixieland Dan, you Worship on Sundays?

And so the texting began.

***

Christmas Eve

***

Diaz: Swing night tonight? Or is your mommy too busy to babysit you at the club this fine evening?

DixielandDan: No, we’re on. Close thing tho. Mom had to rush out to get a new clarinet. Busted the old one bopping bratty cheer coaches over the head.

Diaz: I’m hard-headed all right. But my body …

DixielandDan: Don’t. Go. There.

Diaz: Oh, I’m going there, all right. But as usual, flying solo. Peace out.

DixielandDan: Peace?!

***

Dan tossed his phone onto the pile of invoices on the bar and buried his head in his hands. Tanya Diaz.

Tanya Diaz and the night that never happened.

But God, those kisses in the car.

And they’d been flirting by text ever since. But was it just flirting? They’d gotten to know each other in an odd way over their phones in the past three months. But did that mean there was something more there? Maybe not. It felt like it, but … if every scrap of communication between them was fueled by that original carnal desire, wasn’t it all just foreplay?

But foreplay to what?

He and Tanya had never been together, and chances were, they never would be.

And then Dan knew by the achy, echoey drop in his gut that whatever he felt for Tanya, it was about more than just sex. Because the thought that they would never be together—not just for a night, but ever—made him feel like he did when he listened to Miles Davis playing “It Never Entered My Mind.”

He reached out and took back his phone, tapping out of the texting app.

“How’s Tanya?”

Dan looked to see that his Mom had just come into the deserted club, her green eyes honing in on him.

“Huh?” He snatched at the nearest invoice and studied it intently.

“You always get that look on your face when you’ve been texting Tanya.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek before setting her clarinet case on the bar.

He tried his best to channel extreme cluelessness. “What look?”

Pam raised her brows and smiled. “You look like you did when you were a kid and had to decide between Nintendo and leaving the TV long enough to go get pizza.”

Dan shook his head, laughing. “That makes no sense.”

“Sure it does. You’ve been texting her for months. If you do something about it, take some kind of action, you might be missing out on something else.” She twirled a faded strand of her auburn hair around her finger. “Maybe the texting is better than the pizza.”

Dan furrowed his brow, as if considering what she said. “You … are a loon,” he decided. “Here’s the playlist for tonight.”

Dan started gathering up the papers scattered all across the bar. Take action? Like he could. Like Tanya could. They were both zip-tied to their jobs, their cities, their lives. And what if … what if it was all just playful teasing for her? What if it didn’t go any deeper? What if it didn’t really matter?

“Looks good,” Pam said, picking up her case.

“Hey.” Dan tugged at the sleeve of her frayed denim shirt. “This what you’re wearing tonight?”

“No worries,” she said, heading to the stage. “I’ve got a sexy tee underneath.”

“The black one?”

“Green.” Pam tossed back her hair as she adjusted the height of her microphone. “It is Christmas Eve, you know.”

A young man with messy dark hair came in from the back and took a seat at the drums.

“Hey, Adam,” Dan greeted. “How was New York?”

“Cold. The orchestra, the soundtrack, all that was good. But it was so damn cold.”

Dan laughed. “A white Christmas comes with a price.”

“I was there for the gig. Period. When it comes to Christmas, I’m in Heat Miser’s camp, all the way.”

“Well, I’m glad you made it back on time.”

“So, what’s on deck for tonight?” Adam tapped at his mic, twirled a drumstick in his hand. “Christmas swing?”

Dan looked up from where he was collecting the invoices. He pasted on a smile. “‘Tis the season.”

***

“Hey, Miss Diaz. Merry Christmas Eve.” Andre slipped into the folding chair next to her.

Tanya smiled at him. Andre Smith. Captain of the football team. Her faithful sidekick. Always around. Always dependable. And Tanya liked that she could be there for him, too. Andre didn’t really have anyone at home. Or at that crack den that served as home whenever he had to give some kind of address.

“Merry Christmas.” She nudged him gently with her elbow in way of greeting. “What was that you were playing with the kids?” She looked across the big rec room of The Dorm to where the little kids giggled and chased each other.

Andre looked away, hiding a smile. “Oh, nothing. Just some game. The Minister’s Cat. I saw it in a movie once.”

“Well, you guys were all having a lot of fun.”

“Yeah … well ….” Andre’s eyes lit up suddenly as he looked toward the door. “Look who’s back.”

Tanya followed his gaze to the front doors, where Vivecka Jones had just walked in. As usual, the disgraced cheerleader wore a hint of defiance like a second skin.

And Tanya didn’t blame her. Vivecka’s folks had a little more money than everyone else in the school district. Not enough to get out, but enough to make almost everyone see Vivecka as someone to pull down off some sort of pedestal. And they’d damn near done it in September.

“Merry Christmas,” Andre greeted, not at all fazed by the gargantuan chip on Vivecka’s shoulder. “So your folks let you have the car back?”

She kept her hands in the pockets of her cheer letter jacket as she shrugged. “Not grounded anymore. They’d have to stick around if they wanted to enforce it, right?”

Tanya furrowed her brow. “Your parents aren’t around?” On Christmas?

Vivecka shrugged again. “My mom always wanted to spend Christmas in Branson.”

“Branson?!” Andre’s whole face screwed up. “Seriously?”

She rolled her eyes. “They say it’s more than just country music and white folks. Anyhow, they ungrounded me when they left yesterday.”

“Branson ….” Andre was shaking his head. “Where’s Dominique?”

“Around. He’s supposed to be in charge. Right. Like he’s more responsible than me.” She looked off and snorted. “He’s with his girlfriend 24/7. And not the same girlfriend he sees at Ole Miss.”

“Man,” Andre said. “That’s not right.”

“No shit.” And Vivecka didn’t shrug this time.  

“Well,” Tanya said, deciding to inject some snap into her voice and get her two favorite students into a party mood. “You listen to me, young lady. You may be out of the doghouse with your parents. But not with me. Now, you go over there and pile yourself a plate full of food. Get some punch, then you get back over here and keep me company so we can dish about that hideous dress Miz Williams was wearing to the school Christmas party. You understand?”

And Vivecka actually smiled. “Yes, Miss Diaz. Right back, Miss Diaz.” She headed toward the table overflowing with treats and meats and breads and drinks, and without any prodding, Andre got up and followed her.

Tanya looked down to her phone, found the last text from Dan, and sighed. She loved her job, no joke. When Colin Scott had asked her to take over The Dorm, Tanya had jumped at the chance to really fight for something that mattered.

So why did it have to happen? Why had she looked up into Dan Allport’s chocolate brown eyes on that rainy fall morning?

Why couldn’t she have looked up into the eyes of some businessman from Dow, who travelled to Louisiana all the time? Or she could have met an arena football player on the Voodoo who’d been in Los Angeles that day to play the Kiss. Yeah, it would have been better if she’d fallen for a New Orleans local when she’d flown to The City of Angels a few months ago. That would have been odd, sure. And coincidental as all get-out. But it could have happened. Right?

Man! He didn’t even have to be a local guy or someone who visited The Big Easy regularly. Any guy who didn’t run his own club and take care of the homeless in the off hours would do. Someone who wasn’t handcuffed to his life.

Just like she was.

Sure, she’d escaped long enough to make that one quick trip for Colin in the fall, but it had cost her.

Maybe Vivecka would have made the same choices if Tanya had been in New Orleans that weekend. Maybe Vivecka still would have gotten arrested and kicked off the squad if Tanya had been watching over The Dorm that day. But probably not. The peer pressure had been too much and Vivecka hadn’t had anyone to turn to. Because Tanya hadn’t been there.

Would there ever be a time, ever again, ever, when Tanya would feel comfortable leaving? Ever ever? When she was the last bastion between these kids and their bad choices? Unlikely.

And between running his club and helping the homeless, Dan had about enough time left over to eat once a day and sleep for two and a half hours. A visit to New Orleans was not in the cards. At least, not in his cards.

Or maybe he just wasn’t motivated enough to make their relationship anything but texting.

Or maybe she wasn’t.

Tanya bit her lip. Maybe what she and Dan had wasn’t real at all. After all, she ran The Dorm like a badass because she knew how to assess a situation and Make. It. Work.

So far, she’d been able to transform every debacle that The Dorm had thrown at her. When the contractors started showing up with decided irregularity, she’d fired their asses with the speed of a Nolan Ryan fastball and hired out-of-work locals. When the wrong color acrylic showed up and the paint company told her to kiss off … well, no one knows who painted the two newest trucks in the company’s fleet with that hideous shade of brown. But Tanya was gratified to have the correct color show up at The Dorm the very next day.

Yes, Tanya Diaz was able to make everything work. Everything.

Except her own damn non-relationship with Dan.

And that said something, didn’t it? Didn’t it?

“Merry Christmas, Miss Diaz.”

Tanya looked up, in something of a haze. And she couldn’t believe who she was seeing. “Colin!”

In a split second, she was out of her chair, around the table, and hugging Colin Scott for all she was worth.

***

Andre looked up when he heard Miss Diaz scream.

What?

Coach Colin! Right across the room! He and Coach texted sometimes, but Andre hadn’t seen him since he’d turned The Dorm over to Miss Diaz and went off to Hollywood to marry Wendy Hunter.

But now he was hugging Miss Diaz, like they hadn’t seen one another in a thousand years.

And as Andre watched them hug, really hug, he felt kind of lonely. Especially with Vivecka standing so close by. Vivecka, who he never hugged. Except that one time, after she got arrested and everyone was being so mean to her. But after that one hug, he’d stepped away and kept away. You couldn’t just go getting all affectionate with the girl of your secret dreams when she was kicked and down. You just couldn’t.

But what was Coach Colin doing here? And where was Miss Hunter?

Man, how long were they gonna hug?

***

Tanya pulled back, beaming. “Colin! I can’t believe it.”

He looked around The Dorm, then back to Tanya. “I had to come back. I couldn’t stand not being here with the kids. Not at Christmas.”

“But you’re banned.”

Colin shook his head. “Wendy’s the one banned from The Dorm. She’s in Memphis with the kids at St. Jude’s.”

“But Colin,” Tanya whispered. “Your first Christmas with Wendy.”

He smiled. “We’re good.” His voice got softer. “She knew how much I wanted to be here. We fly back to L.A. together on the twenty-seventh.”

And suddenly, Tanya could feel herself shaking. Colin Scott would be at The Dorm for the next two days. Colin Scott, the man who’d founded The Dorm in the first place. The one other person who could be trusted with the fate of The Dorm.

This was her chance.

And she wanted it. She knew she wanted it. She wanted her relationship with Dan to be real. She wanted to make it real. And this was her chance.

“Colin, can you do me a favor?”

***

At five o’clock on Christmas morning, Tanya pulled into the Louis Armstrong airport. She was about to give Dan Allport the most amazing surprise ever. She was going to rock his Christmas socks right off. The flight she’d booked last night had only had one seat left, but she’d gotten it. And in a few minutes, she would be on her way to Los Angeles.

And it had to be a surprise. Tanya couldn’t text Dan and tell him, not when she could hardly believe it herself. But she was doing this.

Starting to feel downright jittery with anticipation, Tanya pulled into the garage and parked her Fiat. She popped the Dramamine pill she would need to survive the flight, grabbed her bag, and dashed into the terminal just as the first fat drops of rain started to fall.

But Tanya was so focused on getting to Los Angeles and surprising the bejesus out of Dan that she didn’t even notice the clouds that kept the Christmas sky dark as it struggled to turn into day.

After going through security, she found a bank of monitors to check her gate.

Delayed.

Tanya blinked. Was she reading that right? She looked at the entire monitor. At all the monitors. At all the flights.

Delayed.

Delayed.

Delayed.

Delayed.

Delayed.

Cancelled.

Cancelled.

Cancelled.

No!

Tanya rushed to the information desk, where she listened in as a woman from the airline explained things to an entire flight of people huddled around the kiosk.

“… storms coming up from the Gulf. Planes are grounded until further notice.”

“Grounded?” a passenger shouted. “For how long? Is it just a single cell?”

“Looks like a multicell cluster. And depending on the damage, we might be here a while. Maybe all day.”

Tanya felt herself lock into troubleshoot mode.

She had to get out of the coming storm. She could not just sit and WAIT. Possibly all day. And the flights would be so backed up! She had to do something.

She could … drive out. Yes! She could drive to … Houston. Yes! And catch a plane from there.

Thank God she hadn’t texted Dan to tell him she was coming. She couldn’t bear to disappoint him or make him wait. Or fail. God, it would be awful if he knew she’d tried but failed.

But she wouldn’t fail. Tanya sat down and started tapping at her phone. The storms had missed Houston. Barely. Sweet! Within five minutes, she had herself on a 4:05 flight from Houston to Los Angeles. It was later than she wanted, but at least she’d secured herself a ticket. She’d be eating beans and rice until June and she wouldn’t be able to get another manicure until her granddaughter’s quinceañera, but that was okay. She was going to see Dan and something like a hurricane from the Gulf was not about to stop her.

She dashed back out to her car, unlocked the door, and sat down in the driver’s seat.

Wham!

Tanya felt slammed by a head-rush of purply-pink dizziness.

Oh, no. The Dramamine. The freaking Dramamine! She’d taken it so the plane ride wouldn’t make her pyrotechnically sick for her day with Dan, but the motion sickness meds caused drowsiness. Marked drowsiness. She’d been planning to sleep it off on the flight. But now she would need that time to drive herself to Houston.

Damn damn damn damn damn.

An Uber? But what Uber driver would risk their car driving through a possible hail storm to Houston on Christmas Day?

Oh, God! What was she going to do? She could feel herself getting sleepier by the second. She was going to sleep right past her TINY WINDOW with Dan.

Tanya had to call somebody. But who? Colin couldn’t help her. He was at The Dorm. And he had to stay at The Dorm. His watching over things was the only reason she felt free enough to go in the first place.

She HAD to see Dan. She wanted to see Dan. This was her one chance. All she needed was … coffee.

Yes, if she got herself some coffee, she’d be fine.

But how was she going to get herself coffee? Her hands and feet felt so heavy. Like, waterlogged, or something. Maybe Andre could bring her some coffee. She picked up her phone and pushed the speed dial for The Dorm.

“Hello?”

“Coffee? ‘at you?”

“Miss Diaz? It’s Andre.”

“Andre? Right. Coffee?”

“Miss Diaz. This is The Dorm. You called The Dorm. You okay?”

“Knew you’d be there.”

“Been here all night with Coach Colin.”

“Colin? He’s there, right?”

“Yeah. You want to talk to him?”

“No! Just coffee.”

“Miss Diaz? Coach Colin said you were leaving for L.A. this morning. You at the airport?”

“The flight can’t go. Got a ticket from Houston, but can’t drive there. Dram meen… too sleepy.”

“Miss Diaz? Miss Diaz? The plane can’t go? The one taking you to L.A.?”

“Grounded. Stupid cells. But not in Houston.”

“You’re going to Houston?”

“If I can get some coffee. Then I go.”

“You’re going to DRIVE? Miss Diaz, where are you? WHERE ARE YOU?”

“Garage.”

“WHICH ONE?”

“Ab deen …”

“Hold tight, Miss Diaz. I’ll come get you.”

***

Andre hung up the phone and stood perfectly still for ten seconds. Miss Diaz needed his help. And he had no car.

But Vivecka did.

Andre took off running with record-breaking speed as he headed toward Vivecka’s, a little over a mile away. When the star athlete arrived at the small, well-appointed house with the manicured pill-box lawn, he didn’t even hesitate at the early hour before he rang the bell. Incessantly. Then he started knocking.

In a few minutes, he heard Vivecka scream from inside.

“Who is it?!” And she sounded freaked.

“It’s okay, Vivecka. It’s me. Andre.”

Vivecka wrenched open the door. She stood there in pink plaid pajama pants and a clingy gray tank top, her hair wrapped in a pink and green scarf.

And she held a Louisville Slugger in one hand. “WHAT?”

Andre swallowed and met her eyes. “Miss Diaz needs our help.”

Five minutes later, Vivecka came running into her tiny front foyer where Andre stood waiting for her. She’d slipped into jeans and an Ole Miss sweatshirt, and she’d pulled her hair up into a bun-type thing. She looked good. Mad, but good. They walked—well, she stalked— out to her Chrysler sitting in the drive.

Andre hesitated before going to the passenger side. “Do you want me to drive?”

“No, I don’t want you to drive! Get your ass in the car.”

Andre got in the car.

Vivecka flipped on the wiper blades as she backed down the cracked drive. “Now, what do you mean, she’s sleeping? At the airport? What all is going on?”

“She was supposed to get on a plane to Los Angeles this morning.”

Vivecka’s eyes got wide and her brows shot up, but she didn’t look away from the road in front of her. “She was?”

“Yeah. Coach Colin is back for Christmas—”

“I know. I saw him.”

“Hey! Will you be quiet so I can fill you in?”

“You want to sass me like that, you can get out right here.”

“Yeah? Then you won’t know where to go and poor Miss Diaz will be stranded and heartbroken.”

“Heartbroken?”

And for the next five minutes, Vivecka kept quiet while Andre explained about Miss Diaz going to see some guy in L.A. while Coach Colin was at The Dorm.

When he was finished, Vivecka licked her lips. Then she bit her lips. “Uh, Miss Diaz loves someone in Los Angeles?” Her voice was barely a whisper.

“I don’t know if she’s in love. Coach Colin didn’t say. I just know she’s going to Los Angeles. He told me all about it last night when she took off.”

Vivecka furrowed her brow as she concentrated on the rainy pavement. “Why is everybody falling in love with Los Angeles and leaving? Why can’t anyone ever come here? Why does everyone always try to get away from—”

Vivecka stopped talking suddenly, making Andre look over at her. He saw the rigid set of her jaw and the way her nostrils flared. But damn, what could he say? What had Coach Colin always told him?

Nobody’s leaving you.

It’s not you they’re running away from.

But those were just words. Words that didn’t mean a thing when Vivecka was alone on Christmas. Alone except for him.

Maybe he could tell her about all the schools that were interested in him. He’d had a championship season, and his grades and test scores were solid. Andre had choices. But he didn’t want to go anywhere until he knew where Vivecka would be. But he couldn’t just tell her that. Not yet. Maybe not ever. It would just freak her the hell out.

So he decided to play it cool. “That’s harsh, girl. You sayin’ you against falling in love?”

“No!”

“But you wouldn’t go across the country to be with the one you loved?”

“That’s NOT what I’m saying. But why can’t anyone ever come here? I mean, I understand why Wendy Hunter couldn’t. She’s a big TV star. But … what’s this guy’s name?”

“Dan Something. I think that’s what Coach said. And nobody’s going anywhere, far as I can tell. Miss Diaz has to be back on the twenty-seventh. So she has to get to L.A. today.”

“Right.” Vivecka clenched her teeth as she got closer to the airport. “She’s parked in a garage off Aberdeen, you said?”

“Yeah. Turn right up here.”

“How we going to find her?” Vivecka demanded. “Do you know which garage? What spot?”

“We just cruise around looking for Miss Diaz’s car with Miss Diaz zonked out in the front seat.”

“Just cruise around?”

“You got a better idea?” Andre challenged. “And how hard can it be? Her car’s red, at least.”

Forty minutes later, they were pulling up next to Miss Diaz’s Fiat 500.

Andre got out and tapped gently at the window, trying to wake Tanya. She didn’t stir. He tapped louder. Nothing. Finally, he pounded on the window with his fist. “Miss Diaz!”

Tanya woke with such a start that her arms flailed and she beeped the horn.

It took her a few seconds for her to realize where and who she was, then she rolled down the window. “Hi, guysss!”

“Hey, Miss Diaz.” Vivecka stepped forward. “We’re here to take you to Houston.”

Tanya’s eyes lit up. “Really? Thass great. I need to go there.”

“We know,” Andre said. “We’re going to drive you.” He looked over to Vivecka. “It might hail. Should we maybe take her car?”

Vivecka crinkled her brow. “I don’t think so. We don’t know what insurance she has or what kind of trouble we could get in, driving her car. Especially with her practically passed out.”

They were both silent for a few seconds, just looking at each other. The last thing Vivecka needed was to get into more trouble.  She couldn’t afford it, not since her arrest in the fall.

“All right.”

Andre helped Tanya into the back seat of Vivecka’s car. Vivecka buckled her in as Andre made sure they didn’t leave anything important in the Fiat.

“Look in her purse,” he suggested. “She got ID? Her car keys?”

“Both here,” Vivecka confirmed.

Andre looked at her phone. “Looks like she has a ticket, leaving Houston at 4:05. And she rented a car from LAX.”

“Sounds like we’re set.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive? It’s really coming down. And it might hail.”

“The Chrysler can take it.”

“I’m talking about you. I been driving longer than you.”

“I can drive,” Vivecka insisted. “And you know what? I’m driving my car. With Miss Diaz. Why are you even coming?”

Andre gave her a steely look and got into the car, taking the front passenger seat.

Vivecka climbed into the driver’s seat and turned to him. “Really. Why do you even have to be on this trip?”

“There’s rough weather. We won’t get out of this storm for at least two hours. We might hit trouble.”

Vivecka jutted her chin and cocked her brow. “You gonna save me?”

“No.” And when he looked at her, he kept his gaze steady. “But when trouble happens, it’s good to have someone in your corner is all. It’s good not to be alone.”

Vivecka didn’t say anything.

Andre was hoping she remembered how he hadn’t ever goaded her. He hadn’t abandoned her. He tried so hard to be on her side. He hoped she knew that.

He hadn’t known her friends were going to egg her into vandalizing the school with bright orange paint. Then call the cops on her. Andre would have stopped them if he’d known. He would have tried to stop her.

He glanced back as Miss Diaz pulled herself forward suddenly and leaned into the front seat. “We going to Hyoosson?”

“We sure are.” Vivecka turned to smile at her.

“Good. But I think we better stop for bekfass first. And coffee.” Tanya tossed some crumpled twenties into the front seat before she slumped back into the back seat and fell back to sleep.

“A quick trip to McDonalds and some coffee?” Andre suggested. “What do you say?”

Vivecka glanced down to the twenties on the seat. “Well, since it’s Christmas, do you think we could go to Starbucks, maybe? I think there’s enough here. Get a Mocha Frappuccino and some cake?”

Andre looked down at the twenties and smiled. “Sounds good.” And the trio pulled out of the garage into the heavy rain.

***

As Dan fell onto the couch in his office, he looked at his phone. Five a.m. The night had been long, but everyone who’d shown up out back was warm, well-fed, and safe.

Another Christmas Eve tucked away.

Dan sighed and set his alarm for nine. Then he trashed that setting and made it noon. Hell, it was Christmas. He may as well give himself the precious gift of seven hours of sleep. In a row. There were plenty of volunteers and staff to take care of everyone out back and watch over the club for the next few hours.

Dan rolled over, curling into a ball. He thought about texting Tanya, but that would make him miss her even more before he fell asleep. It wasn’t like she’d answer this early, anyway. He knew she planned to sleep until at least nine on Christmas.

Dan rolled back onto his back and stretched out. As he drifted off to sleep, he thought of Tanya snug in her own bed.

***

Every crack of thunder and flash of lightning made Vivecka jump. Two hours into the ride, and the weather wasn’t easing up. It had just gotten worse. The rain was sluicing down with such force that visibility came and went with every swish of the wiper blades. At least it wasn’t hailing. Yet.

Still, she hated driving in the violent storm. But damn if Vivecka would trust Andre to drive the car. She couldn’t trust anyone anymore. Not since the fall.

Not that Andre was like all the other kids. Was there a little voice inside her then, telling her to believe in him? Maybe. But she couldn’t trust her own judgement.

“Oh, no.” Andre leaned forward to peer out the flooded windshield.

Then Vivecka saw it, too. The river of blurry brake lights in front of them.

“Pull off here,” Andre said.

“Where?”

“Here! Exit, exit!”

“Where?!”

“Here!” Andre grabbed the wheel and wrenched it to the right.

Vivecka stepped on the brakes, but they slid in the water. “Ahh!”

Andre leaned over and took the wheel, crushing Vivecka back into the driver’s seat.

“I can’t breathe!”

“Just ease on to the brake,” he commanded as he navigated the car down the exit. He turned onto the main road and into a parking lot. “Brake!”

Vivecka pressed harder until the car stopped.

As Andre leaned off her, she shoved him in the back. “What the HELL do you think you’re doing?!”

“Getting us off the damn freeway!” he shouted. “Why didn’t you just take the exit?”

“I couldn’t see it.”

“I could. Damn, girl, you don’t have to do this all by yourself.”

“Yes, I do,” she countered with heat. “You almost got us killed.”

“You did. Teamwork, girl. You should give it a shot.”

But she just shook her head.

“Trust me. Trust yourself. We can do this if we work together.”

“Yeah, well ….” Vivecka looked around. “Where are we? How bad is the 10?”

Andre checked his phone, looking at the map of traffic along the freeway. “Bad. Red all the way to the 8.”

“No, way!”

“We can take this road and get to the 146. Then to the 90. Then to the 8. We’ll miss all the traffic.”

“That’s so far out of our way!”

“We have time. Miss Diaz doesn’t have to check in until three.”

Vivecka took a few deep breaths. Then she nodded. “Okay.”

As they drove north on the narrow road, the rain let up to a lesser deluge.

“Whoa!”

“Hey!”

Vivecka stopped the car. Through the blurry, rainy windshield, she and Andre could see a big creature standing in the road. It turned its head to look at them.

Vivecka gasped. “What is that? A horse?”

“I think it’s a cow.”

“Do you think you can move it?” Vivecka looked over at Andre.

“Can I move a cow?”

“See if you can shoo it off the road, maybe.”

“Shoo a cow. Got it.” Andre nodded and got out of the car.

In less than a minute, he was back. “It’s not a cow.”

“So? Just shoo whatever it is.”

“It’s a bull. I’m not shooing a bull.”

Vivecka looked back out at the bull, who looked like he was looking at her. She swallowed.

“Drive around it,” Andre suggested.

“Into the field? We’ll get stuck!”

“Just go fast. Real fast. Don’t give the tires time to get stuck.”

“For real?”

“Want me to drive?”

“No!” Vivecka put the car in gear. “Here we go!”

They got stuck.

“Damn!” Vivecka hit the gas, but the wheels spun.

The bull turned. He was still looking at them.

“I’ll get out and push,” Andre said.

“Be careful of the bull.”

“Thanks, coach.”

But with all the pushing, they were still stuck.

The bull did not seem pleased.

Keeping an eye on the monstrous creature as he stared down the car, Vivecka climbed over the center console and got out the passenger door. She went around to the back of the car and saw the deep, muddy grooves the tires were stuck in. Then she opened the door to the back seat. “Andre!” she called. “Come here and hold up Miss Diaz. I don’t think it’s safe in the car. Not with that bull taking aim at us.”

Together, they got Miss Diaz out of the car.

Tanya looked from one to the other of the soaked teenagers. “Are we there?” she asked. “It’s still raining. I have to get a plane!”

“It’s okay,” Vivecka said. “We’re not there yet. We’re just taking a little break.”

Tanya looked across the roof of the car. “Is that a bull?”

“No.” Andre was quick to answer.

“Let’s back up,” Vivecka suggested

When Andre and Miss Diaz stood a few feet back from the car that stood between them and the bull, Vivecka dove back into the car. She let both passenger-side doors gape wide as she slid into the driver’s seat.

“Vivecka! What are you doing!” Andre looked mad, but he couldn’t do much with Miss Diaz in his arms.

“Playing bumper cars!” And she beeped the horn. Then she beeped it again,

When she saw the bull lower his head and paw at the ground, she buckled herself in and slid as far from the driver’s side door as she could. She beeped the horn again. Beep beep. Beeeeeep.

The bull charged the car.

“No!” Andre bellowed.

Vivecka braced for impact as the bull slammed into her door.

And she felt the car move—out of the mud.

“Get in!” she yelled.

Andre shoved Miss Diaz forward and they jumped into the back seat.

Vivecka took two seconds to start slowly, then she surged ahead, just as the bull made another run toward them. They made it back to the road and Vivecka gunned it, leaving the bull behind.

She drove for a full minute, door swinging wide in the rain, without saying anything.

“Andre?” she finally said.

“Yeah?”

“I’m going to pull over. I think I want you to drive now.”

***

Three hours later, the sun poked through the grumpy Houston clouds, but Andre was still in the driver’s seat. Vivecka had been pretty quiet as they sat in the car at the airport, waiting to hear that Miss Diaz got her flight no problem.

Vivecka looked at her phone when it buzzed. “She’s on the plane,” she reported. “They take off in ten minutes.”

Andre put up his hand and they slapped a high-five. “Woo-hoo! Go, Miss Diaz! And damn, girl, you were such a hero today. Way. To. Go.”

Vivecka looked away, then looked back. “A hero? Really?”

“Bumper cars? With a bull? You sure Dominique’s friends’ll fix the car?”

Vivecka raised her brows and quirked her lips. “They will unless Dom wants me to introduce his girlfriends to one another.”

Andre shook his head and grinned. “Brass cojones. You got brass cojones.”

“Thanks,” she said, leaning back in her seat. “Now, let’s get out of this parking lot. It’s something like twenty bucks a minute.”

“Chill. It’s three dollars for the first hour. And we’ve got it left over from the breakfast money.”

Andre turned the key.

“Wait.” Vivecka looked down at her phone. “Miss Diaz just said to look in the backseat. I think she forgot something!”

Both of them turned to look at once and knocked their heads together.

“Owwww!” Vivecka flopped back, rubbing her hairline. Andre, though, barely seemed to register the bop to his head. He reached back and grabbed Miss Diaz’s Starbucks bag. She’d written a note on it in black pen. “Christmas Dinner on me.”

Andre peeked inside the bag and saw a few twenty dollar bills. Maybe more than a few. His face split into a wide smile. “Text her that we say ‘thank you.’”

Vivecka stopped rubbing her head and looked at him. “Thanks for what? What’s that there?”

“She left us some money with a note.” He handed her the bag.

Vivecka read it. She really took her time, looking at the words, until she pulled the bag to her chest as if it were a teddy bear. “Wow. That was really nice of her.”

“I saw a diner a few miles back,” Andre said. “The sign said Christmas dinner, ham or turkey. What do you say?”

But Vivecka hardly seemed to be listening, as she still clutched the bag like a talisman. “Okay.”

As they drove into the gray day, Andre stole glances at the pensive Vivecka.

“She wants us to have a good Christmas,” she finally said quietly.

“Sure she does,” Andre agreed. “And it’s not because we did her a solid. It’s  because she loves us.”

Vivecka looked at him. “You think?”

He shook his head as he pulled into the parking lot of the diner. “I know.”

They both got out of the car and stretched from their toes to the tips of their fingers. “Man,” Andre said, coming around the hood to meet Vivecka in front of the car. “What an adventure!”

“Yeah.”

But Vivecka looked sad.

Andre turned to face her. “What’s wrong? We just did a good thing and made Miss Diaz real happy.”

“I know … it’s just … I’m celebrating Christmas at a crappy diner, miles from home. Not that anyone even knows.”

“Look in there.” Andre pointed to the plate glass window of the diner.

Vivecka looked into the front window decorated with stenciled-on snow and holly.

“There’s a Christmas tree in there and I bet they’re playing Christmas carols,” Andre said. “And I bet it’s warm and cozy, too. And look how cheerful that waitress is. And she has to work on Christmas. But she’s making it cheery for everyone.”

“Maybe we can get hot cocoa,” Vivecka murmured, considering.

“Vivecka.” Andre’s voice was quiet and level enough that she looked at him. “We did a good thing today. And we’re about to go have a nice dinner. Spending Christmas with someone who thinks you’re the bomb seems like a pretty happy holiday to me.”

Vivecka looked at him, arching her brows. “Oh? And is that what you’re doing? Spending Christmas with someone who thinks you’re the bomb?”

Andre’s gaze didn’t waver. “I don’t know. But you are.”

Vivecka swallowed. “Because I played bumper cars with a bull?”

“I’ve always thought you were the bomb, Vivecka. You never had to prove a damn thing. Not to me.”

Andre put out his hand, as if he wanted to shake. Vivecka took his hand in an arm wrestling grip, wrapping her thumb around his.

“Let’s do this,” she said.

He smiled at her, a smile that went deep into his dark eyes. She smiled back. A real smile.

Together, they walked into the warm and cozy diner. And they were still holding hands.

***

Tanya pulled the rental car out of the lot and felt a shiver of anticipation. Now that she was awake, thanks to all the coffee on the plane—and had there been a bull?—she had to concentrate to keep from bouncing out of her skin with sheer excitement. She was in Dan’s city. He was less than an hour away.

Still, she checked the signs and steered her rental toward the 405 south, headed for the closest Los Angeles branch of the gym she belonged to in New Orleans. She’d have to go about twenty minutes out of her way down to Hermosa Beach, in the opposite direction of Dan’s club downtown, but the detour was worth it. Tanya would have less than two days with the man, so she had to take him from zero to sex-crazed in under five seconds. There was no time to waste on flirtation or preamble. She’d missed almost all of Christmas day with him already. They needed to get naked and preferably into a bed as fast as humanly possible. So Tanya needed to look like a million bucks and spare change from the couch cushions. Just to be sure.

She glanced to the duffle in the front seat. She’d packed some comfy clothes for cuddling, some sexy undies and nighties. A silky pair of lounging pajamas. But it was the painted-on red cocktail dress that was going to do it.

When Tanya got to the gym, she flashed her membership card at the front desk and surged toward the showers. Forty minutes later, she headed back out to her car, striding with purpose in her four-inch heels. Her above-the-knee sleeveless red dress was faintly dusted with sparkles as it clung to every toned and curvy inch of her. Her rich chestnut curls were twined back from her face and hanging loose behind her shoulders. She wore the faintest hint of perfume.

Tanya Diaz was ready to go get her man.

She got in the car and looked at the clock on the dash. She’d arrive at Worship not too long after they opened at seven. The band would be settled into its first set and things should be calm enough for Dan to notice her.

Perfect.

Forty minutes later, Tanya drove up to the club, immediately impressed by all the security in the parking lot. But what had she expected? Dan had made a success of a jazz club on Skid Row. The risky location had cachet that drew in customers, but the patrons didn’t really want to endanger themselves or their cars. They just wanted to feel bold.

Dan Allport obviously knew what he was doing.

And hadn’t they texted, more than once, about security issues? Tanya felt a chill snake up her spine as she began to realize, to really fully feel, that she was about to see the man she’d been getting to know for the past three months. They’d talked about so many things. His sister Rachel. Her years in sports news. His decision not to play the sax professionally. Her grandma’s jambalaya.

And she was about to see the man she’d been sharing so much with.

This was it. This was real.

She stepped into the hazy club and the languorous strains of a—was that a flugelhorn?—washed across her skin.

Mmmmm.

She didn’t know much about jazz—very few song titles or artists—but she knew what she liked. And she liked what she heard.

After listening for a few seconds, she sidled up to the bar, just as cool as a peppermint, and took a seat. After all, she couldn’t stand there and gape, looking for Dan high and low, could she? She was going for sexy-as-all-get-out, not clueless-and-looking-for-the-ladies’-room.

“Merry Christmas.” The bartender came up to her and spoke with a decidedly Lando Calrissian lilt to his voice.

“Merry Christmas, yourself,” she tossed back, suddenly feeling all Mae West. “Scotch and soda. Glendronach, if you have it.”

“Lady’s got taste,” he crooned as he made her drink.

Tanya swiveled on her stool and took in the club.  A few couples sat at tables and there were some lone patrons, too. Tanya was the only one at the bar. She was just about to turn back to pick up her drink when two young men bumbled into the club, laughing too loudly and slapping at each other as they approached the bar. They looked home from college and overstocked with Christmas cheer.

“Hey,” one of them said, stopping in front of Tanya to look her over.

She tossed an unconcerned glance their way. “Keep moving.”

“Hey!”

“Let’s go.” The other guy pulled Romeo down the bar.

Tanya picked up her drink and turned back to face the club. Maybe Dan would come from back of house at any second.

As she sipped from her glass, she heard the guys down the bar. “Flaming rum punch!” Then they burst into more gales of snorty laughter.

Flaming rum punch? Like in It’s a Wonderful Life? Tanya rolled her eyes. Wow, those two jackasses did not seem like the cozy Christmas classic type.

By the time the bartender had gotten them to give serious orders and he brought them their martinis—no flames and no punch—Tanya was facing the bar again.

She looked to the bartender, who didn’t seem to mind gravitating toward her.

“So where’s Dan Allport?” she asked, with a saucy rift to her voice. “Guy who owns the place. Me and him, we go way back.” God, now she was channeling Veronica Lake. And finding every second thrilling! No wonder Dan loved this club so much.

“You know Dan?” The bar tender smiled. “You should have said. Next one’s on the house.”

“He around?”

“Nah. At the hospital.”

“The hospital!” And just like that, all of Tanya’s sass fell away.

“Whoa, whoa,” the bartender said. “He’s all right. Took Proud Mary in. She’s one of the regulars out back. Went into convulsions earlier today. Maybe a fit. Maybe bad drugs. So Dan took her to the ER at The Good Samaritan.”

Tanya took a few deep breaths, pressing her breastbone to calm herself. “No time for an ambulance?”

“Ambulances don’t come to Skid Row for suspected drug overdoses.”

Tanya nodded, familiar enough with that kind of thing.

The boys down the bar burst into laughter again, and Tanya flicked them a glance without meaning to. And in that second, she saw what they were about to do just as they actually did it.

“No!” she cried.

Tanya bolted up as the boys lit their napkins on fire and tossed them into their glasses … and set their drinks ablaze.

Flames whooshed up to the ceiling, catching a string of holly on fire. Flames licked across the ceiling, making everyone jump back. Sprinklers sprang to life, dousing the bar. The bartender grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran to squelch the flames. In the moment of white foam spraying everywhere and customers standing up and yelling, the two boys got up and ran toward the door.

“Hey!” Tanya yelled, chasing them. “Stop! Security! Security! They started the fire!”

The boy who’d looked her up and down turned to her. “Shut up!” He grabbed her roughly by the hair to push her away from him.

But as much as his grip hurt her, Tanya grabbed onto his arm and wouldn’t let go. As the other guy scrambled out the door, she kept screaming for security as the one who’d tried to shove her now tried to shake her off, to no avail. He picked up a flooded tray of drinks, ice cream, and apple pie from the waiters’ station at the bar and slammed it into her.

But Tanya still didn’t let go.

He started kicking at her and Tanya kicked back.

Finally, someone came in from outside.

“It’s okay! I’ve got him!” The new guy grabbed the miscreant from behind and pulled him off her. The sudden loss of resistance sent Tanya reeling backwards and falling like Bambi into a puddle on the floor.

“Oh!”

The sprinklers shut off and Tanya wiped her sopping, sticky hair out of her eyes. She looked up. “Dan …” she said on a sigh, her whole face lighting up. “Merry Christmas. How’s Proud Mary?”

***

As Dan Allport held the fleeing arsonist in an armlock, he looked down to the floor of the club and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Who he was seeing. That hellcat who’d just been fighting tooth and nail was … Tanya?

Tanya Diaz? And she was asking about Proud Mary?

“M-merry Christmas. She’s good. Stable … Tanya?”

Just then, one of the off-duty cops from the parking lot came in and cuffed the guy Dan was holding. “A car’s on the way from the station and Rob’s got the other one outside. Corralling him took some doing.”

But Dan could barely process anything. He looked around at his stunned club, his soaked bar. “They set my place on fire?”

The bartender stepped up. “They were goofing off, set their drinks on fire. Caught the string of holly. But yeah.” He looked down to where Tanya still sat on the floor, drenched, her hair pulled all askew, and her dress and body covered with drinks and ice cream and bits of apple pie. “This one here’s the real hero. I was putting out the fire and she wouldn’t let them get away.”

“Ma’am,” the cop said. “Don’t leave. We’ll need to get your details.” He spared the hooligan he held by the arm a withering glance. “Let’s go.” And he dragged out the young thug.

Tanya stood up, flicking apple bits out of her cleavage.

Patrons were laughing, some were screaming, and the band members had run off stage. Two cops came in from outside and every worker from back of house flooded into the main room of the club. All at once, everyone was talking to Dan, pulling at Dan, yelling at Dan.

But in the wreck of his club and in the middle of the raucous melee, Dan could see only Tanya. Mighty, beautiful, amazing Tanya.

“Oh, Dan,” she breathed. “I’m so sorry.”

But Dan just stepped forward and swept the soaked and splattered Tanya into a kiss that shut everybody up.

***

An hour later, Tanya stood clutching a blanket around her damp, trashed dress. Before the cops had separated them for questioning and statements, Dan had wrapped her up and had one of the waiters bring her a cheeseburger and a Dr. Pepper shake.

A Dr. Pepper shake. Butterflies in Tanya’s stomach were going wild.

“All right,” the cop named Rob said to her. “The statement seems in order and we know where to reach you if we need to.” He sat back down at Dan’s desk in Dan’s office. “Merry Christmas.” And Tanya knew she was dismissed.

She walked back into the club and spotted Dan across the room. He’d taken off his suit jacket and he had one sleeve rolled up, while the other was coming unrolled. His hair was messed. He had apple goo and ice cream smeared across the front of his white shirt. Tanya smiled at that, wanting to press up that close to him again. And not let go for a good, long time.

From the looks of things, Dan had just about everything under control. The bartender had acted fast, so there wasn’t much fire damage. The few patrons were gone, the band was packed up, and the wait staff was straightening everything up while laughing, chatting, and singing.

Dan looked up from across the club and saw her. Without pausing, he made a beeline toward her.

“Dan!” Pam came running in and then she stopped, the three of them standing in a jumpy triangle. “Tanya!” A smile broke across her face. “Merry Christmas.”

“Hi, Pam.” Tanya smiled back. “Merry Christmas.”

Pam turned to Dan. “You pressing charges against the jerks who did this?”

“Damn straight. And the only reason we know who to charge is that Tanya wouldn’t let them get away.”

“I know!” Pam held up her phone. “I already saw it on YouTube. One of your customers posted it an hour ago.”

“YouTube?!” Tanya squawked.

“But how?” Dan asked. “The police took her phone for evidence.”

“She must have uploaded it first.” Pam laughed. “We’re going to get a lot of business out of this. But I saw the fire marshall outside. Since we’re closed for an inspection, why don’t you two heroes take off.”

Dan shook his head. “Tanya’s the hero. You saw the video.”

“You saved Proud Mary’s life today. You’re a hero, too. Now, go home.”

“Mom ….”

“What?” And her very tone seemed impermeable to any backtalk.

Dan smiled. “Thanks, Mom.”

Pam turned to Tanya and held out her hand.

Tanya let the blanket fall to a nearby chair and took Pam’s hand in both of hers. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Pam smacked her hands together with glee. “Merry Christmas, you two.”

Dan and Tanya watched Pam walk over to the bar, where she started shouting orders. “Wow,” Tanya said. “She’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Dan turned to her. “So are you. God, I still can’t believe that you’re here.” He looked down at her then, and for the first time that night, he saw her dress and not just the woman in it. “Oh, God, Tanya. Your dress! You came here to surprise me and look what my club did to you.”

She shrugged. “I wasn’t about to let those two get away with lighting up your place. I told you once, I fight when it matters.”

Dan took a step closer to her. “And my club matters?”

“You matter.” She ran her fingers along Dan’s hand. “And as for the dress, no big deal.” Tanya lowered her voice. “I only wore it so you would want to take it off me.”

Dan swallowed. “I live in Echo Park. Ten minutes away.”

“Perfect,” she cooed. “And … I’m going to need a shower when I get out of this dress.”

“Let’s go.”

***

Epilogue

***

DixielandDan: Good day at The Dorm?

Diaz: Yeah. I might actually get some sleep tonight.

DixielandDan: Tucked up in bed?

Diaz: Just climbed in. You?

DixielandDan: Pretty close, actually. Early night for me.

Diaz: That’s rare.

DixielandDan: No kidding. Well, Happy New Year.

Diaz: Thanks. But you’re a week late, Jazz Man Genius.

DixielandDan: I know. But I’m just getting around to celebrating tonight.

Diaz: Oh? And how are you celebrating?

DixielandDan: I’m at your front door.

***

Tanya stared at the phone for a full five seconds before she yelped and hopped out of bed, pulling the sheet with her and wrapping herself as she ran. She looked through the peep hole then wrenched the door open.

“Dan!”

He stood on her doorstep, smiling and raising one brow as he took in the sight of her, naked except for a sheet. “My return flight takes off in twenty-two hours and forty-six minutes.”

Tanya pulled him into her apartment and slammed the door.

***

THE END

About the Author

When she was a kid in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Geralyn Vivian Ruane Corcillo’s favorite Christmas present was a box set of four Agatha Christie paperbacks her mom put in her stocking one year. When she grew up, and streaming songs were a new thing, her husband Ron knocked her Christmas socks off when he downloaded her all-time favorite Christmas song, “Snoopy’s Christmas,” by The Royal Guardsmen. These days, Corcillo and her husband like to spend Christmas having dinner with friends and talking about 80’s movies.

Most of all, Geralyn Corcillo loves connecting with readers! Reach her at:

  • @geralyncorcillo
  • geralyncorcillothewriter

geralyncorcillo.com

Also by Geralyn Corcillo

Find her books on Amazon: Geralyn Corcillo

In Love in the Limelight Series

Miss Adventure

Queen of the Universe

Catch a Falling Star

***

Drakenfall Series

Upstairs, Downstairs … and the Lift in Between

A Drakenfall Christmas

***

Short Stories

4 in the Afternoon: Four Romantic Comedy Short Stories

The Miraculous Power of Butter Cookies

Holly Tierney-Bedord

1

When Dob and Sally Buefred’s daughter Barbara turned six months old, she won the Green County Beautiful Baby prize. She was awarded a piggy bank filled with silver dollars, a hundred dollar savings bond, and a coupon for photo sessions for life from local photographer Nat Wilbury.

Unfortunately, Nat died two weeks later. Dob and Sally were miffed about this for a while, being young and poor, and needing to get their money’s worth out of things, but they soon forgot their loss when they discovered the fantastical news that they were expecting another baby.

“Let this baby be as wonderful as Barbara,” said Dob.

“All babies are wonderful,” said Sally. But secretly, she agreed with her husband.

When little Bonnie came along, Sally and Dob and all their friends and relatives agreed that, if it was possible, Bonnie was even cuter than her sister. Her spark was somehow sparkier. Her giggles were gigglier. Her diapers were less stinky and filled up somewhat less frequently than her older sister’s had.

All the world adored Bonnie, except Barbara, who went out of her way to smother her sister with pillows and blankets. Luckily, this was all taking place back in the days when pillows were coated in latch-hooked yarn, so you could never really get a good seal over someone’s face, and blankets were crocheted and called afghans, and in the style that left them with large, breathable holes.

Barbara and Bonnie didn’t agree on much except their mutual contempt for one another, until their baby sister Brandi came along. Brandi arrived on a snowy morning in November, 1976, prompting the expression “Third time’s a charm” to become the family’s motto. And charmed little Brandi was. Her cuteness and grace were in a realm that reached far outside the New Glarus, Wisconsin standards of beauty. When she was a year old and the Buefreds were riding the Illinois toll road to visit Dob’s grandpappy in the Windy City, a cop pulled them over for speeding, took one look at Brandi, and called up his talent scout sister in Los Angeles.

The next dozen years were a rush of small but frequent parts in commercials and situation comedies. You may remember Brandi from such roles as LITTLE GIRL SHINY TEETH #2 from the Sparkle Mouthwash Commercial of 1984, or RUNNING HURDLE TRIPPING GIRL from the Shave-Rite Gel for Teens commercials of 1988-89. And who could forget LITTLE SISTER OF BAD BOY RICK who appeared in episodes 71 and 73 of That McAlister Clan?

But then, in late 1989, puberty hit. This was before acne could be dealt with in any feasible manner. The Buefred girls were all teenagers then, living with their parents in a rented, mildew-tinged shack in West Hollywood. The entire family had survived off Brandi’s earnings for so long that none of them knew how to fend for themselves.

Sally Buefred had a bit of that hardworking Wisconsin tenacity left over from her days on the farm, and it coursed slowly but surely, like a chuggy locomotive, deep inside her veins. She took one look at Dob, dozing on his recliner, and realized he’d gone soft. Too soft to be of any use. “Girls,” she said to her daughters, “we need to pull together.”

“Like, how do you mean?” asked Barbara.

“Financially,” said Sally. “We need to bring in some money. Pretty soon we won’t even be able to afford groceries.”

“I don’t care about food,” said Barbara. “I’m happy just watching TV and drinking the occasional malt.”

“You’re bringing me down, Mom,” whined Bonnie. “Can’t you just write a check for what we need?”

“No,” said Sally. “We’ve relied on your little sister long enough. It’s made all of us forget that we, too, can be contributors. It’s really just a matter of deciding how.”

“I’d like to keep supporting you all, but I’m not good at anything but acting,” said Brandi, coming out of the bathroom with dabs of toothpaste all over her face.

Barbara and Bonnie went back to watching Jake and the Fatman.

“Think!” said Sally, jumping up and turning off the television. “There’s got to be something we can do to make money.”

“Well,” said Bonnie, “our high school is having a craft sale next weekend to raise money for our holiday pageant costumes. I could whip up some mini teddy bear cross stitched ornaments.”

“How would selling crafts at your school help us earn money?” asked Sally.

“It doesn’t matter, because the craft sale has been canceled,” said Barbara, “on account of the Brat Pack is giving us their old clothes.”

“My middle school is having a bake sale,” said Brandi, desperate to contribute to the conversation. After all, it was her failing appearance that had gotten them into this pickle.

“How would you know?” asked Bonnie. “You never even go to school.”

“I do so,” said Brandi. “Now that I don’t get tutored on set I go at least three times a week. More if Dad remembers to drive me.”

“You know, girls, that bake sale’s not a bad idea. I used to be quite the baker,” said Sally. “Here’s a solid plan: We’ll use Brandi’s bake sale as our practice run. We’ll see what sells best, and then we’ll go from there. When’s the sale?”

“Tomorrow,” said Brandi.

“Tomorrow? Okay. Nobody panic! Get in the kitchen right now, girls, and start practicing!” screamed Sally. She went out to the family room and flicked Dob’s ear a few times. He awoke with a sputter. “Get down to Vons and buy us some cookie ingredients,” she told her husband.

“But we’re broke,” he reminded her.

“Use this,” she said, handing him the piggy bank Barbara had won as a baby.

“Why?” he asked, wiping the drool trail from the side of his stubbled face and blocking his eyes with a TV Guide.

“Pay attention! I need butter, flour, white sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, eggs, some of those sugary sprinkles, chocolate chips, oatmeal…”

“What do you want with all these ingredients?”

“Quit with the questions! I’m trying to save our family,” said Sally. “Either pick up the groceries I need, or go out and get a job.”

“I’ll be back with your groceries soon,” said Dob, tucking the pig beneath his arm and smoothing his flannel shirt down over his sweatpants. Sally watched as, a moment later, their rusty station wagon rumbled out of the driveway. She sighed, kissed her knuckles, and sprinkled her fingers up at Jesus. “Please, guide him in his shopping,” she prayed. “Our future depends on these cookies.”

***

“This is quite the bake sale,” Sally said the next day when she and Brandi arrived at Brandi’s school after dropping off the older girls at their high school.

“I warned you, Mom.”

“Who’s that woman over there, with the oversized sweatshirt and the kinky hair?”

“Which one?” asked Brandi.

“That one, with the splatter-paint denim skirt over the turquoise leggings, and the big ruby ring on her hand. She seems to be running the whole show. She looks snooty.”

“That’s Kristina Spader. She’s Jessica’s mom.”

“Your arch nemesis Jessica?” asked Sally, picturing the golden-haired little skunk who’d beat out her daughter for the part of HIGH SCHOOL DANCE OFF RUNNER-UP in the afterschool special starring half of the Saved by the Bell cast. In Sally’s opinion, this loss has been the downward turning point in her daughter’s once illustrious career.

“Mehhh. I’m not sure I’d call her that. But yes, that’s Jessica’s mom.”

“She looks like a tramp,” said Sally, who still preferred the oversized bellbottoms and polyester turtlenecks she’d been wearing since the 70’s.

Brandi nodded. “She runs the bake sale. We should probably take our cookies over to her. She likes to decide where everything goes.”

“Oh, does she now? I think we’ll set up right here. Right in front of the trophy case. There seems to be a nice, big, empty spot, waiting just for us.” And with that, Sally Buefred began unpacking plastic baggy after plastic baggy of freshly baked cookies. She’d brought an extra jar of sprinkles, and when she had everything arranged just to her liking, she dusted her sample tray with a flourish of tiny silver balls.

“Excuse’m moi,” said Kristina Spader, sauntering up to Sally and Brandi. “Did you sign up to present at this bake sale? Because everyone presenting has already checked in. And darn it all if I don’t have one extra spot.”

“We’ve squeezed ourselves in here just fine,” said Sally. “Care to try one?” She gestured like a game show model towards her artfully arranged spread of coconut clusters, oatmeal melties, chocolate chip caboodles, and peanut butter bungalows, and then up to her masterpieces: Yummy, flaky, slightly crumbly, just-sweet-enough-but-not-too-sweet butter cookies. She cleared her throat, ever so delicately, but in the curdle of phlegm was the subtle yet definitive message that she had kicked all their asses.

“Nope,” said Kristina Spader, tapping her clipboard. “Your name’s not on here. Pack ‘em up. We’ll find a place for you next time. Maybe. Hard to say. The spots fill up so fast.”

“You wouldn’t seriously turn us away, would you?” asked Sally. “That would be like turning down free money for the school.”

Kristina Spader’s blush-stained cheeks turned a deeper shade of crimson. “Would you look at what you’ve done? Your sprinkles have contaminated Louise Baylor’s Special K bars! That really crosses a line. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“But my daughter Brandi is a student here. We have every right to contribute to the bake sale.”

“Do you even know what we’re raising money for?” asked Kristina Spader, a small, evil smirk making her lips curl up like a dead leaf.

“Umm… Hmmm,” said Sally. Lying, and even guessing at an answer that she had no idea about, had never come easy to her. Blame it on her strict Catholic Midwestern upbringing. She rubbed her nose, scratched her head, and then went for it: “Costumes! Some costumes for the Christmas pageant,” she said, semi-decisively. Brandi winced and shook her head.

“Try again,” said Kristina.

“New sporting equipment?” Sally whispered, desperately.

“Not even close,” scoffed Kristina. “Shall I scoop these back into your Tupperware containers, or have you got it?”

“It’s art supplies. Right?” Brandi tried.

“Sayonara, ladies,” said Kristina.

***

“Well, Mom,” said Brandi. “At least we get to eat them now.”

“We’re not going to eat these. I know you’re only twelve, and too young to understand this, but we need to make some money. We’re going straight down to Hollywood Boulevard and we’re going to sell these. Zits or no zits, I think you’ve still got what it takes to impress a crowd.”

“Thanks, Mom. I’m thirteen, actually, and I have a pretty good understanding of money. Even if we sell these cookies for a dollar each, which seems unlikely, that would only be about two hundred dollars. I made fifteen times that when I starred in those gummy vitamin commercials. I think we might need a new plan.”

Sally Buefred’s face crumbled like the cookies in her hands. “You’re right, Brandi. We only have one option.”

“Get me a prescription to heal my blemishes?”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. We’re going to have to move back to New Glarus, Wisconsin, and live at my parents’ farm.”

“I thought I was going to be a star! I even learned to tap dance!” Brandi cried. “Couldn’t we find some way to get by until I make it through these awkward years?”

“I’m afraid not, my little Brandi-snifter. Easy come, easy go,” Sally Buefred replied solemnly.

***

Two days later the Buefreds were driving across Nebraska, munching on their leftover cookies, dreaming of how great it was going to be to eat cheese all day and to never have to worry about working again. Dob and Sally were gushing about how cozy and homey Christmas on the farm would be, and Bonnie and Barbara were enjoying a rare moment of camaraderie, playing a tiny game of magnetic checkers together. Brandi was curled up in the back of the station wagon, taking a nap, when a heavy, gray cloud rolled in and tiny pellets of ice began pelting the station wagon.

She awoke with a start, confused and alarmed by the sound. “What’s going on?” she asked her family.

The radio was on and at first they were all too consumed with their own lives to notice her. She leaned over the seat, rubbing her eyes. “What’s the stuff coming down from the sky?” she asked again, a little louder this time.

“It’s called weather,” said her sister Barbara.

“Yeah, it’s snow. Or sleet. Something like that. No biggie,” said Bonnie. “King me!”

“It is a little slick out here,” Dob remarked.

“And the tires are as bald as a bowling ball,” Sally added.

“But I’m a good driver,” Dob reassured them, just as the car went careening across the highway and skidded into the corner of a billboard.

***

“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse,” said the tow truck driver.

“How do you figure?” asked Dob. “The car doesn’t even run now! And we’re hours from our destination!”

“I meant that at least you’re all fine. Not a scratch on any of you. I’ve seen it all, in my line of work. Count your blessings.”

“Easy for you to say,” said Sally. She took a bite of a cookie, unsure how else to find any comfort, and then passed the container around to the group. They were at the Big Platte Lodge, a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere. The tow truck driver had delivered them here since it was the closest place he could think of where they’d be able to spend the night.

“Mind if I try one of those cookies?” he asked them, after he’d unloaded their car in front of their motel room.

“Go right ahead,” said Sally.

The tow truck driver – Bob was his name – took one bite of Sally’s buttery, melty, flaky butter cookie, and his eyes flew open in fond remembrance. “Grandma…” he whispered.

“They’re good, aren’t they?” said Dob, taking a quick break from recognizing his family’s devastation to be proud of his wife.

“Amazing,” said Bob. “You know, the truck stop across the way is looking for a baker.” He pointed just up the highway to a long, low building surrounded by gas pumps, semi-trucks, and dying pricker bushes. A huge, half-lit spinning sign reading Free Shower with Breakfast helped to lure in sweaty travelers from a seven mile radius.

And so it came to be that for two whole years, while the Buefreds lived in the Big Platte Lodge saving up to buy a car, the Traveler’s D-Lite Truck and Travel Plaza in Cozad, Nebraska had the best cookies of any truck stop on the Great Plains.

***

Twenty-five years later

***

The first flakes of snow had just begun to fall on the quaint chalet rooftops that dotted New Glarus, Wisconsin when Brandi Bliss pulled her shiny red SUV into the second stall of her four-car garage. She sighed, unloading her yoga mat, Trader Joe’s bag, and bouquet of harvest themed flowers. “Forty,” she whispered to herself. “You’re actually going to be forty. How gross.”

Once inside, she arranged her flowers and restocked her bowl of fruit, and put her yoga mat in its place in the corner of the coat room off the foyer. The cleaning lady had just left, so there was nothing, not even laundry, to do. For the zillionth time she picked up the phone to call her mother, and set it back down. It had been a year since Sally Buefred had passed away, and Brandi still couldn’t get used to it.

“I suppose I could decorate the house for Christmas… Or perhaps I could volunteer at the kids’ school this afternoon,” she told herself. Instead, she fixed herself a cup of detoxifying tea and turned on the television.

She flipped from channel to channel, trying to find something that would take her mind off the impending doom of tomorrow’s birthday. She was about to turn off the television when a familiar face caught her attention.

“Welcome back to Baking with Jessie,” purred the woman on the television screen. “Today I’m going to show you how to make the perfect Christmas cookie platter.”

Brandi sipped her tea, glaring at the screen. “As if you know anything about making cookies,” she muttered. “No one can make cookies like my mom did.” She wiped a stray tear from her face.

“The secret,” said the woman on the television “is that your butter needs to be the perfect temperature. Some recipes call for melted butter, some for room temperature butter, and some for cold butter. Don’t get creative with the temperate. Remember: Baking is science. You need to follow recipes exactly or they won’t turn out right.” Then she smiled a warm, sweet smile, to soften the critical sting.

“Why do you look so familiar?” Brandi asked the woman on the screen.

“Let’s bring out my mama. The woman who taught me everything I know. Please give a big welcome to my mother Kristina,” she said, and her studio audience broke into a robust round of applause.

Out walked a perfectly preserved woman in her late sixties. Fluffy, silver hair. Chic linen pantsuit. Gigantic ruby ring on her gnarled, knotty claw. Brandi dropped what was left of her detox tea onto the floor with a clatter, and let out a small shriek. This moment was so big, so obnoxious, that it led her to do something she hadn’t done in over five years: She picked up the phone and called her sister Barbara.

***

“I’m not sure why you wanted to bring us all together,” said Bonnie, brushing wiry gray strands from her face and moving her toddler Selma to her other breast. “She’s a hungry little turd,” she added, patting her daughter’s head.

“No kidding,” said Barbara. “So, Brandi, I thought you were too good for us low-lifes? Now here you come, crawling out of the woodwork. Is this because you’re turning forty tomorrow? Are you having some kind of meltdown?”

“No. But thanks for remembering my birthday.”

“I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t contacted me,” said Barbara.

Brandi coughed and took a sip of her coffee. The sisters were gathered together, along with two of Bonnie’s seven children, in the upstairs of Stack O’ Cakes Cafe in Madison. Brandi had prepared an outline of her plan, to make their meeting as quick and painless as possible, but, as usual, her inefficient sisters were going off on tangents.

“Listen up,” she told them. “Do you remember Jessica Spader?” Her sisters looked at her blankly. “From when we lived in LA?” she added.

“Nope,” said Bonnie.

“Can’t say I do,” said Barbara.

“Well, anyway, I was watching TV this morning…”

“Must be nice,” Barbara muttered.

“And who should come on, but Jessica. She has her own baking show! And her mom, that horrible woman Kristina Spader, the one who kicked mom and me out of the bake sale, causing us to have to move to Nebraska – you two do remember that whole chain of events, right? – Well, she was on there, too. It really got my blood boiling!”

“Nebraska wasn’t so bad,” said Bonnie.

“I met Tank in Nebraska,” Barbara said, bringing up her abusive ex-husband.

“And Dad’s still out there, somewhere,” Bonnie said, shaking her head sadly.

“Are you sure about that? Have you seen him?” asked Barbara.

“Back to the here and now,” said Brandi. “It’s not right that Jessica Spader has her own baking show and we don’t. We need to pull together, for Mom. She was the best cookie baker on the whole entire planet, and it would be inexcusable for us to let her recipes die. She may be gone, but we can keep her alive by baking her cookies. But I need you two to help me. I don’t remember all the recipes, and she hardly ever wrote them down, but I’m sure if the three of us work together, we can figure out how to bring them all back to life. We helped her in the kitchen for years. We can do this! For Mom!”

“Is this really about Mom, or is it about you being jealous of Jessica Spader?” asked Bonnie.

“Or is this some kind of freak-out since you’re turning forty?” Barbara suggested again.

Brandi shrugged. “Little bit of all of those?” she admitted.

“I’m too busy working nights at the nursing home to help you,” said Barbara.

“And I’m too busy with my kids,” said Bonnie. “Most of them are at that age where they’re getting smart, and I’m exhausted from helping them with their homework. All I do, day and night, is fractions. Geometry. Division. I’m one big, sad, math whiz. I don’t have the time or energy to bond with you over a hot oven.”

“There’s one other thing I didn’t mention,” said Brandi. “Jessica and her mom are entering the First Annual Yodel-ay-hee-hoo Yuletide Cookie Bake Off, which just happens to be taking place in New Glarus in two weeks. The contest is going to be aired on the Baking Network. It’s a really big deal!”

“So?” said Barbara.

“Well, the Yodel-ay-hee-hoo Yuletide Cookie Bake Off is still accepting entries, but only for one more day,” said Brandi.

“Looks like we pretty much missed our chance,” said Bonnie, yawning.

“I’m so not interested,” Barbara added.

“The contest is taking place on the same weekend that Chet’s taking the twins to violin camp,” Brandi continued, “so my house will be free for you to both stay with me. It’ll be just like old times!”

“Who’s Chet?” asked Barbara.

“My husband,” Brandi said, glaring at her sister.

“I still don’t understand what any of this has to do with us,” said Bonnie.

“I haven’t told you two the most important part,” Brandi said. “The grand prize winning team gets their own TV show and a hundred thousand dollars.”

“A hundred dollars?” Barbara repeated, her eyes lighting up a little in consideration.

“A hundred thousand dollars,” Brandi said.

“Count us in!” yelled Barbara and Bonnie in unison.

***

“Okay,” Brandi said to her sisters, both of whom were doing their best to not appear intimidated by the Wolf range and shiny mixers in Brandi’s kitchen. “I had these Team Buefred aprons made up for us. Don’t worry if you get batter on them, because these are our practice aprons. The real ones say Team Buefred, too, but they’re much prettier than these.”

“Why do they say Team Buefred?” asked Barbara. “My last name is Bunson, and Bonnie’s last name is Perkins, and your last name is something different now, too. Right?”

“My last name is Bliss,” said Brandi, doing her best to keep her breathing even, “which it has been since I got married fourteen years ago – I cannot believe you don’t know that – but we needed a team name. So we’re the Buefred girls, baking in honor of our mother Sally Buefred. It just makes sense.”

“Mmm, I dunno,” said Bonnie.

“Put on your stinkin’ aprons,” said Brandi. “We need to get down to business. We’ve only got eleven days until the contest, and there’s a lot of work ahead of us. Barbara, I want you to work on whipping up Mom’s special peppermint stick frosting. And Bonnie, you and I are each going to throw together a batch of Mom’s famous snowman sugar cookies, basing it on memory, and then we’re going to compare notes after we taste them.”

“Man, you’re bossy,” said Barbara. “And what’s up with that lady over there, holding that bowl of brown batter?”

“That’s not batter,” said Brandi. “It’s hair dye. Barbara and Bonnie, meet my personal stylist Carmella. She’s going to give you two the teensiest little makeovers, while we’re working.”

“Not me! I like to look natural,” said Bonnie, scratching at her fuzzy mustache.

“I’ll take a free dye job, if you’re handing ‘em out,” said Barbara.

“That’s the spirit, Barbara! Consider it my early Christmas present to you,” said Brandi. She turned to Bonnie. “Remember: We’re going to be on television. This is our big debut! Getting spiffed up couldn’t hurt our outcome.”

“But will my friends still respect me if I dye my hair?” Bonnie asked.

“They will unless they’re really shallow. Now, where were we? I think a little music will get us in the mood for this,” said Brandi, putting her Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CD into the small stereo she kept on her kitchen counter. Moments later Carmella was painting Barbara’s hair brown and Bonnie’s mustache blonde. Fat flakes of snow were dancing across the New Glarus sky, and the kitchen was filled with unprecedented cheer and laughter, along with the delicious aroma of Sally’s cookies coming back to life.

The sisters worked on their recipes all day long. They were back at it the next Saturday, and Bonnie and Barbara both called in sick the following Wednesday to have another go at it. When the older sisters had to work, Brandi kept at it on her own, adjusting the ingredients this way or that, testing out slightly different cooking temperatures and pans, working towards those elusive, perfect cookies of yesteryear. She even enlisted the help of her normally-distant children, Nicholas and Cassandra, and her chilly husband Chet. Slowly but surely, their cookie recipes were evolving into the formulas for taste bud heaven that would have made Sally Buefred proud.

The night before the contest, New Glarus was a-buzz with television crews and reporters. Barbara and Bonnie arrived after dinner with their overnight bags, so they could be up bright and early when the contest started the next morning.

Instead of putting them each in their own guest rooms, Brandi unfolded the sleeper sofa in the den and made up the bed. She topped it off with three pillows. “Just like old times at the Big Platte Lodge,” she murmured, remembering those days with an unexpected twinge of longing.

The three women snuggled up together and were dozing contentedly when an explosion rocked the night sky over Brandi’s McMansion. At first she thought it was the nearby butane plant exploding, but to her relief, it was just some celebratory fireworks, in honor of the next day’s big event.

“Beautiful,” Barbara said, pulling the blanket around her shoulders, looking up through the skylights at the cascading sparkles above them.

“Mom would be so happy that the three of us are finally together again,” said Bonnie. “And just in time for the holidays!”

“It’s crazy to think that, in a way, Kristina Spader and her daughter Jessica are the reason behind this,” mused Brandi.

“Yeah, I still don’t know who you’re talking about,” Bonnie admitted.

“Me neither,” said Barbara, going back to sleep.

***

“Hear ye, hear ye, cookie lovers,” said the man dressed like a giant Swiss elf, who, apparently, was the event’s emcee. “It’s almost time to begin.”

Brandi, Barbara, and Bonnie were decked out in their fancy aprons, grasping each other’s hands, practically shaking with nervous anticipation. They were in the New Glarus High School gymnasium, which had been temporarily converted into a baking kitchen. Twelve other teams stood around them. There was a mix of amateur and professional bakers. Directly to their right stood Team Spader, comprised of Kristina, Jessica, and Jessica’s seventeen year old daughter Samantha. They also wore matching aprons, but they hadn’t stopped there. They had a turquoise theme going on. From the chunky turquoise highlights in their hair to their turquoise nail polish, the three generations of Spader ladies were a perfectly matched set. All cameras were on them, with the rest of the contestants seeming to be merely their supporting cast.

“I feel like those turquoise gals have already got us licked,” Barbara whispered to her sisters.

“Nonsense,” said Brandi. “We haven’t even gotten started yet. Don’t get discouraged!”

“Round one,” said the elf, into his nutcracker shaped microphone, “will be frosted bars.”

“Frosted bars?” Bonnie cried. “How can bars be part of a cookie competition?”

“Don’t worry,” Brandi assured her sisters. “I’ve been practicing everything. Even bars! We’re going to be fine!”

“Quit your whispering, and pay attention,” the elf warned the contestants. “Each team gets five minutes to collect ingredients from the mini-grocery store we’ve set up outside for you, and an additional fifty-five minutes to bake, frost, and plate their bars. Sixty minutes from now, our judges will taste the outcomes. Ready … Set … Go!”

Brandi darted outside while Barbara and Bonnie stayed back, preparing their prep and baking space. There was a large white tent holding all the ingredients just outside the school, and people were stampeding towards it. Brandi noticed that most teams hadn’t thought to leave anyone behind to get working in the kitchen. She hoped she was able to gather everything she’d need in just her two arms.

“Are you all by yourself?” hissed a voice in Brandi’s ear, just as her hand closed around a lemon.

“Oh. So we meet again,” Brandi said to Jessica Spader. “Nice seeing you, but I’m afraid I don’t have time for chitchat.” She scooped two lemons into the hem of her shirt, and spun around to locate the vanilla, but Jessica was on her like a barnacle on a sunken ship.

“Lemon bars? How original. And how un-Christmasy! You do realize that’s the theme of this competition, don’t you?”

“Why don’t you mind your own business?” Brandi suggested.

“I’m having too much fun minding yours. Plus, I was smart and brought my daughter along to collect ingredients, so I have a little extra time on my hands to catch up with you. By the way, you’re never going to be able to carry all the ingredients you need. Why didn’t you have one of those trolls you call your sister help you out?”

“Three minutes in the mini-grocery store remaining!” called the elf over the loudspeaker.

“Don’t insult my sisters,” Brandi warned, grabbing a bag of flour, a bag of sugar, and dashing off towards the section with the butter and eggs.

“Two and a half minutes!” hollered the elf.

“Mom, do you want me to get this kind of baking soda or this kind?” Jessica’s daughter Samantha asked, holding up two containers.

“Just bring back both,” snapped Jessica.

“The rules say you can only bring back one type of each ingredient you use,” Samantha told her mother.

“Two minutes!” bellowed the elf.

“Oh. I didn’t realize that. In that case…” Jessica looked back and forth between the two, while Brandi piled her shirt with butter and eggs. She couldn’t help but feel a little smug; the baking soda in Samantha’s right hand was the only correct answer, but Jessica didn’t know it.

“Let’s do this one,” said Samantha, accidently picking the better choice, to Brandi’s disappointment.

“Just one minute to go, folks!” yelled the elf. Brandi double-checked that she had everything she needed, and was halfway back to the gymnasium when Kristina Spader appeared out of nowhere, her alligator loafer shooting out with cougar-like precision and deftly tripping Brandi. All of Brandi’s ingredients flew up in the air, while Kristina continued on her way, never looking back. Somehow, Brandi managed to catch them all, save for one of her eggs, which lay splattered in the dirty, trampled snow. Brandi turned around to gauge whether there might be time to return to the mini-grocery store, just in time to see the elf untie the open flaps, closing off the tent. “Tent’s closed,” he yelled to Brandi.

She jumped up, clutching her remaining ingredients, her hopes shot. As Jessica had said on her baking show, baking was a science. This, unfortunately, was true. Trying to make a recipe come together without the correct number of eggs was never going to work. Their bars were doomed.

“What’s the matter?” Barbara asked, when Brandi unloaded her pile of ingredients on the table beside her sisters.

“That bitch Kristina Spader tripped me, and I broke an egg. How are we supposed to make Mom’s special lemon eggnog bars with only four eggs?” Brandi shook her head. “We need four for the bars and one for the eggnog frosting. We might as well give up now.”

“Let’s throw in the towel,” Barbara said, tossing a towel onto the floor.

“Do you have everything else you need?” Bonnie asked Brandi.

“Well, yes,” said Brandi.

“But what good will the rest of the ingredients be if we don’t have the right number of eggs? This isn’t some pile of treats we’re making for some hungry teenagers. This is the biggest challenge of our lives,” Barbara declared.

“You two!” said Bonnie. “All we need to do is cut the rest of the ingredients by twenty-five percent. Honestly, it’s not that complicated.”

Brandi wiped her tears away while Bonnie got a scrap of paper and calmly wrote down their new, adjusted recipe. All around them were other groups of scrambling, stressed-out contestants. The nearby teams were just beginning to preheat their ovens, and were just pulling mixing bowls from the cupboards. Since Barbara and Bonnie had stayed behind, their kitchen was perfectly in order.

“We’ve got this,” Bonnie said, squeezing Brandi’s shoulders. “Do you believe me?”

Brandi nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”

Bonnie and Brandi made the bars while Barbara worked on the frosting. They were like a finely oiled machine, while all around them other teams were shouting, crying, and bumping into one another. Team Buefred was pulling their bars out of the oven to cool before some teams had even started baking theirs.

“It’s a good thing we had all those practice sessions,” Brandi noted, under her breath, trying to divert her eyes from the chaos around them. Everyone seemed to be losing it, with one exception: Team Spader looked as polished, coiffed, and pulled together as if they did this every day. And why wouldn’t they, when Jessica had her own baking show, and her family regularly appeared on it?

“The odds were stacked against all of us from the very beginning,” she realized.

“Do you think it’s actually not a fair competition?” asked Barbara, looking up from frosting the bars to evaluate their surroundings.

“Ten of the thirteen teams are amateurs, and only one team has experience on camera,” said Brandi. “And speaking of cameras, they’re all pointed towards Team Spader about ninety percent of the time. I think this is a publicity stunt for Baking with Jessie. If there really is a hundred thousand dollar prize, I think the check’s already written out to them. The rest of us are here for comic relief. Just to make a show.”

Two teams have experience on camera,” Bonnie said, correcting her sister. “Their team, and ours. Have you forgotten that you were one of Hollywood’s hottest child stars?”

“Ha! So I did a few commercials. That was a long, long time ago,” said Brandi.

“But you were such a natural,” said Barbara.

Bonnie nodded. “We hated to admit it, because we were jealous, but you really had something special.”

Brandi sighed. “But I’m forty now.” She didn’t elaborate. That seemed to say it all, in her opinion.

“We both turned forty and survived,” said Barbara. “And isn’t Jessica about your same age?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so,” Brandi said, brightening a little.

“Yet she has her own show,” Bonnie said.

“True,” said Brandi.

“Here comes the camera guy,” Barbara said. “Work your old magic!”

“Oh my gosh. I don’t know,” said Brandi.

“Pull it together! You’ve got this!” whispered Bonnie, just as he sidled up in front of them.

“Tell me about your team,” he said, that old familiar lens pointed right in Brandi’s face.

“Well,” she said, tilting her chin a bit so he’d capture her from her best angle. Barbara and Bonnie were nodding, ever so slightly, subtly cheering on their sister. Brandi swallowed the thick, dry lump in her throat and smiled, trying to conjure up some of that old show-bizzy confidence. “I’m Brandi, and these are my sisters Barbara and Bonnie. We’re making our mom Sally’s famous lemon eggnog bars today.”

“You three look like peas in a pod,” said the camera guy. Brandi resisted her usual inclination to gag when she heard this, and actually took a look at her newly made-over sisters, trying to see them with fresh, non-judgmental eyes. She realized that both were still as gorgeous as they’d been back in high school. “Thank you,” she said. “What a kind thing for you to say!”

“You’re welcome,” said the cameraman. “Remind the viewers watching at home: What’s the name of your team?”

“Team Buefred,” she declared proudly.

“Do you think you three might actually stand a chance of winning this whole thing?”

“Do we think we might win it?” Brandi asked incredulously, but with a show-stopping smile. “We know we’re going to win it!”

“From the smell of these bars,” said the cameraman, inhaling the just-frosted delights on the counter in front of him, “I think you’re right!”

“Great job!” Barbara told Brandi, as soon as they were alone again.

“He stuck around here way longer than he’s been with most of the other contestants,” said Bonnie.

“If you still have any doubt about whether we’re contenders,” said Barbara, “look over there at the evil trio.”

Brandi looked over at Team Spader. They were all glaring their way. Kristina was smacking a wooden spoon against her open palm.

“I’d say they’re a little bit threatened,” said Bonnie.

“Alrighty, folks,” the elf announced. “We have just five minutes to go. If your bars are still in the oven, you may have a problem. Remember: This is a frosted bar competition. They need to be baked, frosted, and displayed in an attractive, festive manner. Any team not meeting these guidelines will be disqualified.”

At this news, half the teams erupted into even more uproarious displays of panic. Of the thirteen teams, four were outright weeping, having given up, and three more were pulling half-baked bars from the oven and slopping frosting on them.

“Five… Four… Three… Two… and quit what you’re doing!” yelled the elf. “Step back from your workspaces. The Edelweiss girls will be coming through to collect your trays of bars. While this portion of the event will be televised, participants will not be allowed to be present. This is a blind taste test. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a cup of hot cider while you wait. Six of you will be going on to the next round. Seven of you will be going home.”

***

Sixty excruciating minutes later, the elf was back. His pointed ears were drooping and his curly toed shoes had flopped a bit. He looked out at the crowd, frowning soberly. “Our judges have made their decision, and their decision is final. To pass this round, contestants needed to deliver holiday-themed bars of a certain caliber, presented with a certain degree of finesse. It’s our grave disappointment to announce that only four teams made the cut.” He shook his head sadly, giving everyone a moment to gasp and groan.

When the crowd had hushed down, he continued. “In fourth place, for their reindeer poop bars, are Betty Crocker’s Cousins. Please stand up.”

Three elderly ladies, who Brandi recognized as the owners of the Little French Bakery on Monroe Street in Madison, shakily rose to their feet. “Thank goodness we renamed them from peanut butter crunch bars to that,” one of them said, laughing nervously.

“Don’t tell anyone, but we’re not really related to Betty Crocker,” another added.

“We assumed as much,” the elf said dryly. “In third place, for their pepperminty fudgetastic bars, are the Sweet Treat Guys. Would you please stand as well?”

Two gentlemen representing Milwaukee’s most famous bakery stood up.

“In second place, for their pistachio cranberry bars, is Team Spader,” the elf announced. Jessica, Kristina, and Samantha immediately jumped to their feet. They drew hearty applause, as the most famous faces in the crowd.

Brandi, Barbara, and Bonnie all looked at each other. “Is it possible?” Brandi whispered.

“Anything’s possible,” whispered Bonnie.

“And in first place,” said the elf, to the breathless room, “for their zesty lemon bars with eggnog frosting, is Team Buefred. Ladies, please stand.”

All three sisters sprang to their feet, unable to keep from screaming in excitement.

“If your name has not been called,” said the elf, “you must exit our kitchen immediately. This is a very tough competition, with a very serious prize. Only the best of the best shall advance to the next round.”

The gymnasium cleared out and the crew got to work rearranging the layout, so the four remaining teams would be ready for their faceoff later that evening.

“I’ll see you all back here at five o’clock tonight,” said the elf.

“What will we be making?” asked one the Sweet Treats Guys.

“Obviously, I can’t tell you that. The element of surprise is the most important ingredient of all,” said the elf.

***

Back at Brandi’s house, the women got comfortable lounging in front of the Christmas tree, enjoying some raclette and wine, and listening to holiday music. Naturally, they began speculating about what kind of cookie they’d have to make in the next round of the competition.

“It would be great if it was something really basic and traditional, like gingerbread cookies,” said Barbara. “We have the most practice with cookies like that.”

“Then again,” said Bonnie, “Mom was pretty good about giving us creative ideas. Remember those lavender lemon drops, for instance? It might be nice to do something along those lines.”

“I don’t think we ought to use lemons again,” said Brandi, “but I do like that lavender idea.”

“Is it Christmasy enough, though?” asked Barbara. “Those judges are harsh!”

“Good point,” said Bonnie. “Maybe we’d better play it safe.”

“I think now’s the time to get creative. Go big or go home!” said Brandi.

“This is all so nerve-wracking!” Bonnie declared.

“The most excitement I’ve seen in years,” agreed Barbara.

“I hate to ask, when things are going so well,” said Brandi, “but do either of you ever hear from Dad?” She topped off their wineglasses.

“Last I saw of him,” said Bonnie, “was about two years ago. Mom had just gotten sick, and he wasn’t dealing with it very well. ‘I’m going back to LA, or better yet, Cozad,’ he told me. He had it in his head that if he and Mom went back to live in the moldy shack in Hollywood, or that old motel off the highway in Nebraska, they’d be happy again, and she’d instantly be healthy.”

“That makes no sense,” said Barbara.

“No, it doesn’t,” said Bonnie, “but Dad was kind of a loonie bird. Once Mom got too weak to rein him in, his quirkiness really seeped out. He broke Mom’s heart when he left, but I know the only reason he did it was because he was couldn’t stand back any longer, watching her wasting away.”

“He was acting really strangely towards the end,” Brandi agreed, remembering how one of the last times she’d seen her father he was wearing a floppy, flowered gardening hat, even though it had been the middle of winter.

“He wasn’t loonie,” said Barbara. “He was just confused.”

“Sorry,” said Bonnie, “but I’ve never been one to sugarcoat things. Except cookies, of course.”

“Poor Mom. And poor Dad. It’s especially hard to think of him alone this time of year,” Brandi whispered, the wine and exhaustion of the day getting to her. Her eyes began to well up with tears. She’d always been Dob’s favorite, and it hurt her to picture him living back at that sad little hut or the rundown motel, alone. Probably still wearing that hat. She hiccupped and chugged the rest of her wine.

“I tried calling the motel a few months back, but the name Dob Buefred didn’t mean a thing to them,” said Bonnie. “I couldn’t find any sign of him in LA, either.”

“Maybe he’s living somewhere nice… like a beach resort in Mexico?” Brandi suggested.

“Possibly,” said Bonnie, frowning skeptically.

“We need to find him,” Barbara said. “As soon as this competition is over, let’s start looking for him.”

“I agree!” said Brandi, raising her empty glass of wine. “To finding our father!”

“And bringing him back home to Wisconsin for Christmas!” Barbara added.

“To live with…” Brandi trailed off, waiting for one of her sisters to jump in. All three women looked down.

“So, anyway. It’s after four o’clock,” Bonnie announced. “We’d better get back to the competition.”

“You ready for this?” asked Barbara.

“Yes,” said Brandi. “Are you two?”

“Absolutely,” declared both her sisters.

***

When the three sisters arrived back at the gymnasium there were news crews from all over Southern Wisconsin waiting outside. The parking lot was packed with spectators and reporters.

“This feels so surreal,” said Bonnie.

“Are you Team Buefred?” asked a reporter, attempting to start an interview.

“Yes, we are,” yelled Barbara. “Woohooo!” she added.

“You’d better get inside,” yelled one of the spectators. “The other teams are already in there!”

Brandi pushed her way through the crowd and into the gym, with Bonnie and Barbara right behind her. The big, wire caged clock on the wall inside said it was almost 4:40.

“Welcome, Team Buefred,” the elf announced. “You made it just in the nick of time. Another five minutes and you would have missed check-in.”

“Yikes,” Bonnie said under her breath. “I don’t even remember learning that rule. We’ve got to be more careful.”

Just then the New Glarus high school band came marching through, playing Don’t Stop Believin’, and a kid dressed as a macaroon went pedaling by on a unicycle.

“I’m trying not to get overwhelmed by all this fanfare,” Bonnie admitted to her sisters.

“Would you look at them,” Barbara said, nodding over at Jessica and her family. They had changed from turquoise accessories to red, fur-trimmed outfits and Santa hats. They’d even added red and green streaks to their hair.

“It’s kind of sad how they have to try to distract from their poor baking skills with a costume change,” Bonnie remarked, loud enough for them to overhear.

“Round two starts in just a couple of minutes,” the elf announced. “Take your places.”

“Does anyone know how many more rounds there are?” Brandi asked the Betty Crocker ladies, who were to their left.

“They won’t say,” said the nearest one. “Probably at least two more. It’s anyone’s guess. I heard rumors that we could be up all night. I had five cups of coffee, just in case.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the elf. The room immediately hushed. “Like last time, you’ll have just five minutes to collect your ingredients for this round, but instead of sixty minutes total, this time you’ll have just forty-five minutes total. Time starts as soon as I announce what the mystery cookie will be. And… it’s… frosted butter cookies! Go!” he yelled.

“Can you believe our luck?” hissed Barbara. “We’ve got this! No one could ever beat us on butter cookies!”

“See ya,” yelled Brandi, taking off running for the mini store.

The remaining teams had wised up, each sending just one shopper and leaving their rest of their teams back to get started preparing their work spaces.

This time it was just Brandi, Jessica, one of the Betty Crocker’s Cousins, and one of the Sweet Treats Guys. Brandi watched as two of her competitors darted from corner to corner of the tent, collecting their ingredients, while another competitor ran straight to the back of the tent, reappearing a moment later with all her ingredients conveniently nestled in her Santa hat, that was now doubling as a grocery bag.

“Did you see that?” Brandi said to Betty Crocker’s Cousin, just as the elf was announcing that they were down to two minutes remaining. “All Jessica’s stuff was ready to go! She simply scooped it up and took off running with it.”

“You must be mistaken, Dearie. Now please excuse me. We’re almost out of time!”

Brandi collected her final ingredients with seconds to spare, feeling the swoosh of the tent flaps closing behind her as she sprinted back to the gymnasium. It wasn’t until she’d plunked all her ingredients down onto the counter that she realized the Sweet Treats Guy hadn’t made it back from the tent in time.

“I’m very sorry to announce,” said the elf to the crowd, “that another team has been eliminated. Will the remaining Sweet Treat contestant please kindly remove yourself from the competition and join your partner outside. Too bad, so sad. As for the rest of you, you have thirty-eight minutes remaining.”

“I hate to take pleasure in others’ misfortune,” Bonnie whispered to her sisters, when they had a moment to breathe a few minutes later, after she’d put the pan was in the oven, “but this is great! We’re in the final three!”

“Yes,” Brandi whispered, “but the odds are still stacked against us. Jessica’s ingredients were waiting for her, all in a little pile in the back of the tent. I’m telling you, this contest is rigged!”

“All we can do is our best,” said Barbara. “At this point, I don’t even care if we win. I just want to make the best cookies we can make, in Mom’s honor.”

Brandi and Bonnie nodded in agreement, and despite that the clock was ticking, all three stopped what they were doing and went in for a hug.

“Are you three squandering your precious few remaining minutes and having a group hug?” asked a cameraman, shoving a microphone in Brandi’s face.

“Yes,” she said, smiling apologetically. “I guess we are.”

“I’m impressed!” he said. “This competition seems to be getting to the other contestants, but you three look like you’re totally in control.”

“We are doing pretty well, aren’t we?” said Barbara, beaming.

“You sure are,” he told them, before moving on to the Betty Crocker ladies.

“Eight minutes to go,” announced the elf, just as Bonnie pulled the cookies from the oven.

“They look great, but I’m afraid they’re never going to be cool enough to frost in time,” said Barbara, nimbly moving the cookies to a cooling pan.

“We can only do our best,” said Brandi, while she fanned them with her apron. “And if it makes you feel any better, both other teams’ cookies are still in their ovens!”

Sure enough, the other remaining teams were both in a panic. “I accidentally poured too much food coloring into the frosting, thanks to my jittery hands. Our cookies will look ridiculous!” Brandi overhead one of the Betty Crocker ladies wailing. Kristina and Jessica’s team, on the other hand, appeared to not even be speaking to one another. They were all glowering at the oven, seeming to think this might help it bake faster.

“Take one more taste of the frosting,” Barbara said, passing it to her sisters. It was Sally’s famed peppermint stick buttercream frosting, and even in the midst of all this drama, that old familiar flavor made Brandi choke up a little.

“It’s perfect,” she whispered.

Bonnie nodded. “Don’t change a thing.”

“Alright. It’s frosting time,” said Barbara. “All those catheters I’ve put in people over the years have certainly given me a steady hand!”

It was true. When Barbara was done working her magic, each cookie had a perfect dollop of frosting on top, and a teensy sprinkle of crumbled peppermint candies dusting the center. Every cookie was exactly, precisely the same, and together, arranged elegantly on their tray, they looked like something out of a magazine.

“Time’s up!” yelled the elf. “Bring your butter cookies up here immediately, or risk disqualification.”

The three sisters ran to the front with their cookies. Brandi stole a quick look to her left. The Betty Crocker’s Cousins’ cookies were piled in a sloppy heap with garish green frosting sliding down them and pooling on the platter. Red sprinkles were haphazardly poured on top. One of the team members was engaging in some sort of huffy-puffy breathing exercise. “Don’t mind Velma. She’s trying not to hyperventilate,” explained the jittery one who’d had five cups of coffee.

Brandi then stole a quick look to her right, and to her grave disappointment, saw a perfectly executed platter of butter cookies, topped off with creamy white frosting. They looked as elegant as could be, and made her suddenly doubt their decision to get creative.

“Alright! Here we go again,” said the elf, nodding to the crowds of spectators and TV crews. “It’s come down to these three teams. This round will be judged live, right in front of our contestants.” The spectators cheered. The elf then did a quick little spin, focusing right on Brandi, and said, “I hope you’re not intimidated by some cameras!”

She gulped. “Nope. I’m not. At all,” she croaked.

A cameraman did a quick zoom-thru, and three more cameras that were mounted above them were all lowered a little, panning in on the action. Bonnie jumped back nervously.

“Due to the fact that just you three teams remain,” said the elf, speaking into his nutcracker microphone, but looking directly at the finalists, “this will be our final round.”

One of the Betty Crocker ladies gasped. “Darn it all!” Brandi heard her say. “I’m going to be awake all night for nothing!”

“Let’s meet our esteemed panel of judges,” said the elf. Four important looking people walked into the gymnasium and all the spectators broke into applause. “Please, folks, hold your applause until I’ve announced them all. Our first judge is Donna Hayberry of Chicago’s famed Guten Muffin Haus. Next is Bernard Wells of Studio Favorites Productions. Third is Callie Dwight of Hannover Talent Industries. Our final judge is Brent Yapp of the Little Bake Shop Cookie Factory.” While the crowd clapped for the judges, Brandi turned to her sisters, more upset than ever.

“Bernard Wells and Callie Dwight are both connected to Jessica and her show! How is this fair?” she whispered.

“Are you sure?” asked Barbara.

“Positive! When I found out that Jessica has her own show, I checked it out online. It’s produced by Studio Favorites, in conjunction with Hannover Talent.”

“Just because there’s a connection, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rigged,” said Bonnie. “Maybe they’d like to have two shows, and they included Jessica since she’s already well-known, and they thought it would raise awareness for this contest.”

“Well,” said Brandi, “I guess that’s a possibility.”

“Quiet, everyone!” yelled the elf. “Let the judging commence!”

For an excruciating twenty-five minutes the judges milled about, sampling bites from all three cookie platters, periodically wandering off to discuss their feelings in a small huddle.

“We’ve narrowed it down to our top two,” judge Bernard Wells then told the elf, passing him a sealed envelope.

The crowd fell silent as the elf tore open the envelope, drew in a long, deep breath, and announced, “Our two finalists are…”

“I can’t take it! I can’t take it!” Barbara muttered under her breath, squeezing Brandi and Bonnie’s hands.

“Team Spader,” said the elf, pausing and waiting for the burst of applause to die back down. “And…”

“Please, please, please let it be us,” whispered Bonnie.

“…Team Buefred!” yelled the elf.

Brandi and her sister cheered, along with the spectators, while Betty Crocker’s Cousins stepped away from their places with their heads hanging low.

The judges came back up to where the remaining two teams waited with their picked-over platters. They bore pensive expressions, now even more serious about their job of deciding between the two. They tasted the cookies and delicately smacked their lips. They broke them and squinted importantly at the flaky insides. They sniffed and licked the cookies, and rolled them around on their tongues like fine wine. Brent Yapp even went so far as to break a cookie into his own ear, while looking pensively off into the distance like an 80’s soap opera hero.

“I’m so nervous I could puke,” Brandi whispered to her sisters.

“Calm down,” said Barbara. “Give me your hand. You two, Bonnie.”

“No matter what happens, we’ve won as far as I’m concerned,” said Bonnie, through gritted teeth.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Barbara said.

“This has all been great, and I’m very happy to be reunited, but I still want to win!” said Brandi.

The judges went back to their huddle, heads together. Now and then one would stomp emphatically or laugh harshly in another’s face, but aside from that, the contestants were at a loss as to what they were thinking.

“Are you ready to cast your votes for the winning team?” asked the elf, after nearly forty more minutes had passed.

“We are,” Donna Hayberry said, with a somber nod of her stately head.

A kid from the high school band came out then, wearing a snare drum, doing a drumroll to add some extra excitement to the big moment. The judges lined up beside the elf, each passing him a sealed envelope.

“Thank you,” said the elf. “I will now reveal our judges’ votes. Let me remind you all, in the event of a tie, nine randomly selected audience members will taste the finalists’ cookies, and cast their votes to break the tie. Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that kind of chaos,” he added.

The crowd laughed and a few people booed, since, naturally, they all wanted to taste the cookies and be part of the decision making process.

“Quiet!” yelled the elf. “Vote one,” he announced, opening the top envelope and removing the vote card with deliberate slowness, “is for Team Buefred!”

Brandi, Barbara, and Bonnie all screamed in unison, and Barbara even did an old cheerleading kick that she thought she’d long since forgotten.

“Vote two,” said the elf, when things had quieted back down, “is for Team Spader!”

“Thank you!” yelled Jessica, while her mother and daughter each attempted to yodel.

“Vote three,” said the elf, “is also for Team Spader!”

“No,” Brandi whispered.

“And,” said the elf, ripping open the last envelope, “our fourth and final vote is for… Team Buefred!”

Brandi and her sisters screamed again. “We’re still in it!” shouted Bonnie.

“That’s right, folks,” said the elf. “We have a tie! That means our audience will make the final, all-important decision. Good people of New Glarus, when you arrived, you received a ticket. I’ll draw until nine of you come forward. Those nine will be our judges. Understand?”

“Yes!” cheered the crowd, who an hour earlier had looked exhausted, but now had all gotten their second wind.

The elf began calling numbers, and one by one the local townspeople stepped forward. When there were nine in a row, the elf collected the two unappealing platters of broken cookies, took them up front, and passed them down the line. The people didn’t seem to mind that the cookies had already been attacked by the judges. They happily gobbled up the remains.

“Do you see what I see?” Bonnie asked her sisters, her eyes wide.

“You mean how Kristina’s fake eyelashes are flapping around like little bats?” asked Brandi.

“Well, yeah, that, but also… take a look at our cookie platters.”

The Team Buefred platter had gone back and forth down the line twice, and was picked clean. Now the locals were discussing their reactions amongst themselves. The Team Spader platter was sitting on the floor, discarded, still holding a few whole cookies and many pieces.

“Professional judges,” said the elf, “would any of you like to say anything to help our amateur judges make their decision?”

“I would,” said Callie Dwight of Hannover Talent Industries, stepping forward with an authoritative air and grabbing the microphone from the elf. “Hello, Wisconsin people,” she said, with a crooked, jittery smile that was more like a sneer. “Whatever you farmy, country people decide, I hope you won’t forget that the grand prize winners won’t need to just be great bakers. This is a very important prize, and the winning team will need to have a standout on-air presence.”

The nine local judges nodded, taking their responsibility seriously.

“We’ll be creating a whole new show, and we have every intention of it becoming a major success,” Callie continued, “so we need you to choose wisely. You can do that for us, right folks?”

The locals responded accordingly, with enthusiastic “Yesses!” and “We sure cans!” and “You betchas!”

“Well, then,” said Callie, before handing the microphone back to the elf, “I’m confident you’ll make the right choice.”

“Would any of the rest of you like to add anything?” asked the elf.

The other three professional judges shook their heads.

“Then we’re ready to vote,” said the elf. “These nine judges have each received two candies: A butterscotch candy and a peppermint candy. They’ll be using these to vote.”

“Are you kidding me?” asked one of the judges, preparing to spit his peppermint disk out into his hand.

“Take another,” said the elf, passing the bag of candy down the line. “If you’d like to vote for Team Spader you’ll drop a butterscotch candy into this black bag. If you’d like to vote for Team Buefred, you’ll drop a peppermint candy into the black bag. Any questions?”

The judges shook their heads.

“Good,” said the elf. “Please discreetly select your candy of choice. Here we go!” He then stepped forward, holding the open bag. The first judge’s hand shot out, opened quickly, hovering just a fraction of an inch over the voting bag, allowing a piece of candy to fall in. Eight more judges repeated the process. The snare drummer was back in action, filling the otherwise silent gym with his nerve-wracking, rapid trill. When the last candy dropped, the drumming faded, leaving a heavy, quivering cloud of expectant silence hanging over them all.

“Without further hesitation, let’s tally the votes!” yelled the elf, reaching in the bag. He slowly pulled out one piece of candy, shot his arm out theatrically towards the crowd, and opened his fist, revealing a peppermint. “One peppermint candy! That’s a vote for Team Buefred!” he announced. The crowd cheered. The Buefred ladies were too nervous to even get in on it. They were each wringing their hands in aggravated silence. Barbara had chewed the inside of her cheek nearly raw.

The two judges from Los Angeles shot each other worried glances.

The elf went for another one. “Two peppermint candies!” he cheered, showing the proof to the spectators. Kristina Spader slammed her fist against the table in front of her and shook her head in disgust.

“Annnnd, let’s draw another…. Three peppermint candies!” bellowed the elf. Cassie Dwight stepped forward, shaking her head, but the elf continued pulling candies from the bag. “Four peppermint candies! Folks, you know what this means. If this next candy is a peppermint, Team Buefred has won!”

“Stop!” cried Cassie Dwight.

The elf pretended not to hear her. He reached in the bag and pulled out a fifth peppermint candy.

“We have a winner!” he announced. “Team Buefred has won our First Annual Yodel-ay-hee-hoo Yuletide Cookie Bake Off!” The elf poured the remaining contents of the bag out onto the table in front of him, revealing all peppermints. “As you can see, it’s a unanimous decision!” he added, just as a net of balloons, tinsel, and confetti snowflakes opened on the ceiling, its celebratory contents pouring down onto the crowd.

“You can quit calling this the first annual contest,” Brandi heard Bernard Wells telling the elf, “because we’ll never be dumb enough to do anything like this again!”

Before the Buefred sisters could fully register what had just happened, they were swarmed with television cameras. Barbara and Bonnie stepped back, somewhat stunned by all the cameras in their faces, but Brandi stepped right up, taking over, answering the reporters’ questions with perfect assuredness.

“Are you ready to be famous?” one newscaster asked Team Buefred.

“Yes!” Brandi shouted confidently.

“Do you have more recipes up your sleeves?” another wanted to know.

“Thousands,” said Brandi.

“Who are you doing this for?” asked another.

“For each other,” Brandi told them, “and our families, and to honor our mom.”

“And to find our dad,” Barbara added, nervously staring into the wrong camera.

“In time for Christmas,” Bonnie added.

“To find your dad?” asked a newscaster. All the camera crews pushed in a little closer, intrigued.

“Yes,” said Barbara, with Bonnie and Brandi nodding excitedly beside her. “He’s gone missing. We’re hoping he’ll see us on TV and find his way back to us.”

Upon hearing this, the Team Spader ladies, who had been standing off to the side, licking their wounds, decided they’d had enough.

“This whole contest has been rigged,” Kristina snapped, passing by them and giving Brandi a discreet little kick in the ankle. “We never could have won against sad-sacks like you three.”

“What my mom said,” Jessica growled, fighting back tears as she brushed past them.

“What my grandma said,” Samantha said, tossing her red and green hair in their faces.

***

Two weeks later

***

The show’s producers had wanted to act fast, capitalizing on the success of the contest, so here were all three Buefred sisters, together in their shiny, white, made-for-TV kitchen, about to shoot their first episode of the show that was being called The Buefred Sisters’ Baking Hour. What they hadn’t realized when they won the prize was that the first three shows were going to be live, and if they didn’t go well, they’d be canceled before they could earn a permanent spot.

Bonnie and Barbara thought this was terrible, but Brandi was used to this sort of thing, from back in the day.

“Okay, I’ve got five of my seven kids hooked up with Twitter accounts,” Bonnie told them, “even though I don’t normally let them go on there. They’re all going to be hashtagging it up, or whatever it is Tweeters do, trying to make it look like people are talking about our show. They said they’d get their friends involved, too.”

“What hashtag are they using?” asked Brandi.

“You got me!” said Bonnie.

“That’s perfect!” said Barbara. “I’ve got all the old folks at the nursing home ready to Facebook about us. I think. I mean… Oh, shoot. I have no idea what I’m talking about,” she admitted, “but a couple of the bed pan gals said they’d help set things up, and put the settings on public. Whatever that means.”

“Good job,” said Bonnie. “What about you, Brandi? Have you got anyone willing to help us out?”

“My kids have lacrosse practice tonight,” Brandi said, shrugging pathetically, “and Chet’s morel mushroom aficionado club is meeting at the wine bar. Sorry. My family’s just not that into me.”

“Well, at least you have us again,” said Barbara.

“Okay, ladies! It’s time,” a cameraman interrupted. “Take your places… and… rolling!”

“Welcome to our show,” Brandi began, the teleprompter helping her along. “Today my sisters Barbara and Bonnie and I will prepare our award-winning lemon bars. These bars were one of our mom’s favorites, and we know you’ll love them too! But first, our phone lines are open so you can get to know us better!”

“Our first caller is on the line,” announced the show’s producer.

“Hello?” the three women said together, with nervous anticipation.

“Hellllo?” croaked an old, familiar voice. “This is Dob Buefred calling. Can you hear me?”

“Dad? Is that really you?” asked Brandi.

“Yes. It’s me. I couldn’t believe my luck, seeing you three girls on the television. I get so confused, and it’s hard for me to remember how to find you. But then I saw this number, and luckily, I was holding a phone, so I dialed you up. Is this really you, Brandi?”

“Yes, Dad! It’s really me!” The producer gave Brandi a big thumbs-up. This couldn’t be going better if they’d scripted it.

“Where are you, Dad?” asked Barbara. “We’re going to come and get you!”

“I was out for a drive, but I stopped at a bar. That’s where I am now. But which one, I can’t say. I’m looking for your mother. Have you seen her?”

The gravity of their father’s situation hit the three sisters, a wave of sadness washing over them all.

“She’s gone, Dad,” Bonnie said quietly.

“She’s gone,” Dob Buefred repeated. “You say she’s gone?”

“Yes, Dad,” said Brandi. “She’s gone.”

There was a long moment of silence.

“But, Dad, we’re doing this show in her honor,” Bonnie said with conviction. “She’s still alive in all our hearts. And there’s room on here for you, too!”

The producer nodded and gave them a thumbs up.

“We just need to get you here with us,” Bonnie reminded him.

“Well,” said Dob. “Let me look out the window… I’m somewhere in Hollywood. I can see the sign from here.”

At that news, several members of the crew sprang to their feet. Within an hour, Dob and his daughters were reunited, the show was renamed The Buefred Family’s Baking Hour, and they’d secured a three year contract, after becoming the most tweeted about live show in the history of the network.

***

The four Buefreds sat down together at the North Hollywood Diner, just like old times, later that evening. One malt and five straws, like they used to do back when Sally was still with them. It was just a week until Christmas, and the diner was decorated top to bottom with whirling, flashing, clanging Christmas décor.

“Things sure have changed a lot in a short amount of time,” Bonnie remarked. “My family is freaking out that we’re going to be living here now. The kids have never even been to California.”

“Same here,” said Brandi. “Honestly, I’m just excited that my family wants to do this with me. I was afraid they’d tell me to go on ahead without them!”

“Yes, this has been crazy. But great,” said Barbara. “My life was so dull for so long. Now I can barely keep up with all the changes.”

“Yet,” said Brandi, “in a way, things have never felt more comfortable.”

Dob Buefred nodded. “I feel better than I’ve felt in a long, long time.”

“Here’s to changes,” Barbara said, raising the malt glass.

“And to things staying the same,” Bonnie said, taking the glass from her sister’s hand and raising it even higher.

“To being together for the holidays,” added Brandi.

“And the rest of the year, too,” said Barbara.

“And to your mother, rest her soul,” Dob said, his old, hazy gray eyes filling up with tears.

“And to you, Dad,” said Brandi, nodding at her father.

“And to you girls,” said Dob Buefred.

“And above all else,” said Barbara, wanting to cheer up her family, “to butter cookies!”

“To butter cookies!” Bonnie agreed.

“To butter cookies!” hollered Dob, startling half the restaurant.

“To butter cookies.” Brandi affirmed, feeling as warm and happy as she could ever remember feeling.

About the Author

Holly Tierney-Bedord lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband Bill and their dog Tyler. She is the author of over a dozen novels, including Murder at Mistletoe Manor, [Right Under Your Nose: A Christmas Story, Surviving Valencia, _]and[ The Snowflake Valley Advice Fairy._] To keep up with her new releases and specials, subscribe to her newsletter or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Surviving Valencia

Bellamy’s Redemption

Zeke and Angelique: Superstars

Sunflowers and Second Chances

Weekend Immune System

Boots on the Ground: A Wrestling with Romance Novella

Coached

Jingle Bells & Social Fails

Jax Abbey

1

“Reese,” hissed Nicole Bartlett, the newest hire at the Dogwood Estates Leasing Office. She held a handset up to her ear with one hand and covered the mouthpiece with the other. The greenish tint to her face and her shallow gasps of air made me think she was going to be sick.

“I think this guy is…masturbating,” she hissed in disgust.

Liz Fowler, my friend and coworker, let out a peal of laughter from her desk across the room.

I groaned and looked up from my game of Angry Birds. “I called the police last time. It’s your turn.”

Nicole’s mouth dropped open, and impossibly, her eyes stretched wider. “This has happened before?”

“Three times in the past month.” Liz sighed and snapped her Us Weekly shut. “What are you still doing on the line? Hang up.”

Nicole’s face shifted from sickly puce to bright pink like she’d been out in the sun for too long. She looked at the phone as if she didn’t know how it had gotten in her hand, then slammed it down.

I leaned back in my chair, propped my feet up on the desk, and crossed my arms. “Tell you what, Nicole, why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

Nicole looked just past me, her eyes vacant. “Are you sure?” she asked.

Having been a fairly recent victim of Jay’s shenanigans myself, I sympathized with her.

“Absolutely,” I answered. “We’ll go over the protocol for cleaning the fitness center tomorrow. Have a good one.”

In a trance-like state, Nicole gathered her coat and left the room.

Liz rose and arched her back like a cat before gliding across the room and perching on the corner of my desk. She raised her eyebrows.

“I thought cleaning the fitness room was your responsibility.”

I put my feet on the floor. “Correction: it’s the responsibility of the most recent hire, who just so happens to be Nicole.”

Liz smirked. “Well played.”

I was just about to answer when my phone vibrated on my desk. I snatched it up before Liz’s nosy self could see anything.

It was my incredibly gorgeous, brilliant boyfriend of two months, Javier Delgado. Though our relationship had gotten off to a rocky start—the two of us squaring off over stolen éclairs, Javi lying to me about his occupation, and me dealing with an inferiority complex—we were still going strong. Honestly, I was head over heels for the guy.

Free tonight? the text read.

For you, always, I typed back. My thumb paused over the “send” button. Thinking better of it, I added a heart emoji to my message.

“You look like you got the last chocolate-raspberry éclair at Cuppa,” Liz said. “Let me guess: it’s the boyfriend.”

“Yes, if you must know.” I opened my desk drawer and pulled out my black, leather purse shaped like a cat’s head. “I’m headed out to meet a friend for lunch. I’ll be back at one thirty, okay?”

Liz hopped off my desk, picked up my Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer candy jar, and selected two peanut butter Christmas trees from its depths before placing one hand on her hip.

“And by one thirty, I’ll assume that means two thirty,” she said.

I eased on my heavy coat, slid my sunglasses up over my nose, and gave Liz a bright smile. “You know me too well.”

***

A short while later, I found myself clutching my coat tighter around me and ducking my head against the cold as I raced up the sidewalk of downtown Wyndlake. Winters in the city tended to be fairly mild, but this year was colder than usual, and our local weatherman said we might see some snow. Even without the white stuff, Wyndlake looked more than ready for the winter holidays, a good thing seeing as Christmas was in two short weeks.

Lampposts were adorned with giant snowflakes and candy canes made out of hundreds of LED lights. Wreaths hung on every shop window, and tinny Christmas carols floated along the street. I was sure the spicy scent of cinnamon and the clean pine smell were burned into my nostrils. I’d always been a fan of Christmas, but the city of Wyndlake took it to a whole new level.

I breezed through the door of Ronnie’s Pizza Shop and stopped just inside, scanning the small restaurant for my close friend, Malcolm Whittier. Tall and gangly, with a penchant for bright-patterned sweaters and vibrant eyeglasses, he was easy to spot.

I waved my hand above my head like a maniac. “Malcolm!”

I approached the table, and in true Malcolm fashion, he rose from his seat. I gave him a hug and unwound the scratchy, knit scarf from my neck before I noticed the plastic tent with the number thirty-eight perched on the tabletop.

“Did you already order?” I asked in surprise. Malcolm was such a gentleman he would take off his suit jacket and cover a puddle so a lady’s shoes wouldn’t get wet.

The tips of his ears reddened. “I ordered for you, too. Two slices of pepperoni-and-pineapple and an order of garlic knots, right? Your drink cup’s over there.”

I picked up my mouth from the floor and shook my head. “God, Malcolm, I’ve missed you.”

Malcolm flushed again, and made to reach for the cup. “I can get—”

I grabbed the cup before he could, and waved him off. “You’ve already done more than enough. I can get my own drink.”

Thanks to the lunch rush, a line of people queued in front of the soda machine. By the time I’d managed to fill my cup with Sprite and fruit punch and make it back to Malcolm, our food had arrived at the table.

“So,” I said once I’d settled myself. “How’d your date go last weekend?”

Malcolm shook his head and ran a hand through the pouf of hair on the crown of his head. “It was…wonderful.”

I frowned. “If it was so wonderful, why do you look upset? What happened? She didn’t like man bags?” I pointedly eyed the leather bag at his feet.

Malcolm shuddered. “Emmeline happened.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that the girl you went out with?”

“No, that’s Cara. Emmeline is her pet emerald tree boa.”

“Her pet what?”

“She has a pet snake,” Malcolm said.

“And that’s a problem because…?” I gasped as a thought occurred to me. “Malcolm, did you go home with her?” I leaned forward and lowered my voice. “Did Emmeline bite you? Did Cara?

Malcolm launched into a coughing fit. “No! I found out about the snake and I had to end things before they even began. I have ophidiophobia.”

My brow furrowed as I tried to figure out what he was talking about. “Speak English, Malcolm!”

“I’m deathly afraid of snakes, Reese. Cara was beautiful and witty and intelligent. And she actually seemed interested in me. Of course it was too good to be true.”

Malcolm had been single for all of his twenty-six years on the planet—and not by choice. Raised in a house full of women, he was the quintessential nice guy, and as such, always relegated to the friend zone. I felt bad for him because he was truly a great catch.

“And you’re sure the snake’s a deal breaker?” I asked.

“I don’t think I have a bigger one,” Malcolm answered.

Not murder, cheating, or even wearing white after Labor Day, but snakes?

Before I could say anything more, my phone vibrated on the tabletop. I glanced at the screen, then up at Malcolm.

“It’s Javi. He says he’s taking me to dinner.”

I typed out a reply. Yay! Where are we going?

Malcolm raised an eyebrow. “You sound surprised that your boyfriend wants to take you out because…?”

“Lately he’s been really wrapped up with his clients. I guess December must be a busy time for contract law.”

“I’m sure he’d be with you if he could, Reese,” Malcolm said with a self-deprecating smile. “Just be glad you have someone.” He looked down at his plate and fiddled with a pizza crust.

I immediately felt guilty. There I was, complaining to Malcolm about Javi not having time for me, but at least I had a significant other. By George, I was going to find Malcolm a girlfriend if it killed me. But it still sucked that these days it felt like Javi and I barely had time to exchange a quick text, let alone go out for a romantic dinner.

“I’m sorry, Mal—”

Malcolm lifted a hand to cut me off and mustered a half-hearted smile. “There’s nothing to be sorry about.”

My phone vibrated again. Greedily, my eyes devoured the screen.

It’s a surprise.

My eyebrows shot into my hairline. A surprise? [_That _]was definitely out of the ordinary.

I have something important to ask you.

“Reese, say something,” Malcolm said, his face etched with concern. “Is something wrong?”

“I asked Javi where we’re going for dinner, and he said it’s a surprise.”

“That sounds fun,” Malcolm said. “Why do you look so perplexed?”

“Because he followed up with ‘I have something important to ask you.’”

Malcolm’s eyes got big and his mouth formed a perfect “O.”

I gripped the table so hard my knuckles turned white. “You’re thinking what I’m thinking, right? He’s going to propose!

Malcolm bit his lip and narrowed his eyes in thought as if he were solving a particularly tricky crossword puzzle. “But you’ve only been dating for a month.”

I scowled at him. “Nearly two months.”

Malcolm rolled his eyes. “Okay, two months. Still, that doesn’t seem crazy to you?” He paused and pushed his glasses up on his nose with righteous indignation. “Especially given your relationship turbulence in the not-so-distant past?”

My bubble of excitement deflated ever so slightly. Sure it was crazy, but why couldn’t it work? I was finally at the most stable point I’d been at in my life, and Javi had once told me that I was a nice breath of fresh air from his previous love interests.

I hated to say it, but maybe Malcolm was just jealous. The old, self-absorbed, flaky Reese would have lashed out at him, but New Reese was going to take the high road. After all, I knew Malcolm really cared about me, and I knew how much it sucked to see friends go out with their significant others while I sat on the couch at home, watching reruns of The Nanny.

I tried to keep my tone as even as possible. “Javi and I acknowledged our problems and dealt with them. I’m not saying our relationship is composed of kittens riding unicorns over a bridge made of rainbows, but we’re on the right path.”

“What would Zoey say about this?” Malcolm asked.

Zoey McCann, my best friend and roommate, was out of town, visiting her fiancé’s family for the week. Zoey normally acted as my conscience and sounding board for decision-making, but when she wasn’t there, Malcolm readily picked up the slack.

I glared at him. “You and Zoey are two sides of the same coin. You know she’d back you up.” I still hadn’t forgotten the “life intervention” on which he and Zoey had conspired.

Malcolm splayed his hands on the table and sighed. “Well, I know there’s no sense in trying to talk to you when you set your mind on something. Just be sure you’re making the best decision for yourself.”

I stood and bundled myself in my outerwear. “Of course I’m going to, Malcolm. I just wish you could be happy for me.” I shouldered my bag and narrowed my eyes. “And if you tell Zoey before I do, I’ll slip an emerald tree boa into your bed.”

2

After leaving an ashen-faced Malcolm, I called Liz and got the rest of the day off by pretending to have a migraine. I knew she didn’t believe me, but she didn’t push the issue. I raced to the first nail salon I came across and got a deluxe manicure. As I drove home, I continued to admire the beautiful French tips at the ends of the fingers on my left hand. I tried to imagine what my ring finger would look like when adorned with a diamond. What kind of ring would Javi get?

In my apartment, I ran a bubble bath with Zoey’s expensive, wonderful-smelling products, and soaked for a while before rifling through my closet and pulling on a lacy, navy blue cocktail dress. I was appreciating my curves in the mirror, when the intercom buzzed, letting me know my hot date had arrived.

I all but skipped to the front door and pushed the button to allow Javi access to the building. Less than a minute later, there was a knock on the apartment door. I threw it open and drank in the sight of my boyfriend. As usual, his chocolaty brown eyes and perfectly wavy hair made me clutch at the base of my throat for my imaginary pearls.

“You always look wonderful,” Javi said before giving me a brief peck on the lips, “but tonight you really outdid yourself. I’m glad I decided to spiff up.”

I held out my arms and did a slow spin. “Oh, this old thing?”

“It’s not just the dress—it’s you. You’re even more radiant than usual.”

“Why, sir, you really know how to flatter a girl,” I cooed as I put a hand on his chest. I let my hand roam under his coat, trying to figure out where he’d hidden the ring box.

Javi groaned and removed my hand, but held it in his. “Reese, you know what that tone of voice does to me. Keep it up and we won’t make it to dinner.”

No dinner meant no proposal. No proposal meant no engagement ring.

“I’m starving,” I announced, all business. “Let’s go.” I let go of his hand and grabbed my coat from the back of the sofa.

Javi blinked at me, then narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “That was a quick change in attitude.”

I shrugged a shoulder, the picture of innocence. “I had a light lunch. Where are we going, anyway?”

Javi smiled, his eyes sparkling with mischief. “It’s a surprise.”

I smiled back at him as I wrapped my scarf around my neck. “Hopefully, the first of many.”

Javi’s brow furrowed in confusion then relaxed. “I guess we’ll see. Come on, or we’re going to be late for our reservation.”

***

“Oh my God, Javi,” I said as he pulled up to Garcia’s. “This is the restaurant where we had our first date.”

“Obviously, I know that,” Javi said, offering me his elbow. He tossed the keys to his Mercedes Benz to the valet and grinned down at me. “But I didn’t expect you to remember.”

I wouldn’t normally let Javi—or anyone, for that matter—get away with a comment like that, but I was so excited that I let it slide. If I had any doubts about Javi proposing, they flew out of my head. Why would he bring me to the restaurant where we’d had our first date if he wasn’t planning to propose? How romantic!

When would it happen? Probably not before our entrées arrived. Maybe the ring would be in my entrée…I’d have to make sure I ate slowly and took careful bites. If we were going to be taking engagement photos anytime soon I didn’t want chipped teeth ruining my blissful smile.

What if there was a piñata? God, I hoped there was a piñata! Preferably one in the shape of ALF, but I’d be happy with a burro. Or maybe Javi would save the proposal until dessert. It was a classic move—

“Reese?” Javi stared at me with an odd expression on his face. “You coming inside? We’re going to freeze out here.”

After shaking myself out of my reverie, I followed him inside the restaurant.

Focus, Reese, I told myself. I wanted to remember everything about dinner and the night so I could recount it to Zoey and Malcolm, and my hypothetical future children.

Javi and I settled into a cozy booth near the kitchen. With the dim light of the low-hanging chandelier over our table, and the high, tufted walls of the booth, we were alone in our own little world. It was the perfect place for a proposal.

I scanned the table for anything that looked out of the ordinary. Everything looked just as it should.

“Reese!” Javi said loudly.

I jerked my head in his direction. “Yes?”

He frowned. “What’s going on with you tonight? I asked what you want to eat at least five times.”

I couldn’t stop the smile pulling at the corners of my mouth. I grabbed Javi’s hands. “I’m sorry; I’m all ears. Why don’t you tell me about your day?”

As Javi began some boring tale about one of his clients, I flipped through a menu, my mind on anything but food.

“Queso?”

I looked up from the menu, my eyes meeting Javi’s. “What?”

“Do you want queso?” Javi asked.

I studied him. Maybe the ring would be in the queso! “Do [_you _]want queso?”

Javi tilted his head to the side. “What’s going on?”

I groaned in frustration. “Nothing’s going on. Get the queso.”

“Okay, okay. One queso coming up,” our waiter snapped. “No need to have an attitude.”

I jumped, not realizing he’d been standing there. The waiter tossed his head and stomped away.

Javi whistled. “Remind me to give him a good tip.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “You seem a little high-strung tonight. You want a margarita?”

“I’m fine. I don’t need a drink,” I said, craning my head around the side of the booth. Where was the Mariachi band that had been playing the last time we’d come? Maybe they were off hiding somewhere until Javi got down on one knee?

Our waiter returned with a tray of fresh chips, queso, and salsa. As soon as the waiter placed the bowls on the table, I dragged them to me before Javi could touch them.

The waiter raised his eyebrows at me but directed his comments to Javi. “…I’ll give you another moment.”

I resisted the urge to plunge my hands into the bowls of dip, instead opting to grab a chip and comb through the salsa, my face hovering only inches above it.

No ring in the salsa. It would have been too easy to spot anyway. I stuffed the first chip into my mouth, grabbed another, and raked it through the cheese again and again.

“Digging for treasure?” Javi asked, the corner of his mouth lifted.

Ignoring him, I kept up my search. No ring in the cheese. I dropped the soggy chip and gave Javi a tight smile before pushing the bowls across the table.

“Thanks for letting me eat some of the chips I ordered,” Javi joked.

I guessed it was just as well that the ring wasn’t in the queso; how the hell would I have gotten all the cheese out of the tiny crevices? But it was okay—we still had to get through a whole meal and dessert.

When our waiter returned again, we placed our food orders, and even though I’d turned down his offer of a margarita, Javi ordered one for me anyway, and a beer for himself.

I forced myself to be present in the moment. I really was happy to be spending time with Javi. But I would be that much happier if I was spending time with him, and there was an engagement ring on my finger.

Our food came, and the conversation remained light. I didn’t find a diamond solitaire in my arroz con pollo, so my only hope was dessert.

When he’d emptied his plate, Javi wiped his mouth with his napkin, and placed it on the table. He looked at my own plate where I’d been absentmindedly pushing around rice.

“You leave any room—?”

Yes!” I shouted before he could finish the question. “Waiter!”

“Okay, Reese, that’s enough. What’s going on?” Javi asked sternly.

“You said you had something important to ask me,” I blurted out. “It’s been driving me insane.”

Javi burst out in laughter, and the velvety rumbling made me shiver. I felt the urge to demand the check and hightail it back to my place for some “quality time.”

“That explains it,” Javi said. “I knew I should have just sprung it on you.”

I leaned forward, gazing intensely at him. “Sprung what?”

“Let’s discuss it over dessert.” Javi lifted his hand to call the waiter over.

Finally.

Part of me was relieved that the proposal was finally going to happen. The other part of me was anxious as to how everything would go down. Would there be cameras? What if something was stuck in my teeth?

Crap. Maybe I should excuse myself to the bathroom to freshen up?

“Fried ice cream for the señor y señorita,” the waiter announced as he put a giant white plate with two spoons in the middle of the table.

The dish was one of the most decadent I’d ever seen. The plate was drizzled with zigzags of chocolate sauce and caramel. Petals of fried tortillas dusted in cinnamon and sugar surrounded a ball of ice cream in a cereal crust. The ice cream ball was topped with more chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry.

“Alfonso really outdid himself tonight,” Javi said to the waiter, gesturing at our dessert.

The waiter nodded. “He tried a new recipe for the crust to keep it crunchy longer.”

I tried to contain myself. I really did. But something in my brain snapped as I ignored their inane chatter.

I grabbed one of the spoons from the plate and dashed it through the ice cream crust again and again. Breathing hard, I only looked up when the ice cream ball was pulverized, and melting all over the plate.

No ring. My shoulders slumped in defeat. Both Javi and the waiter looked at me as if I’d suggested we take off our clothes and streak through the restaurant.

Javi recovered first and glanced up at the waiter. “Could you excuse us?”

“Gladly,” the waiter muttered, drifting through a door marked “Staff Only.” No doubt he was going to gossip with his coworkers about the crazy girl with no table manners and erratic behavior.

Javi waited until he was well out of earshot. “What the hell are you doing?”

“What the hell are you doing?” I shot back. “I thought you were going to propose.”

Javi’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head. “Propose? Propose what?”

Heat rose in my cheeks at Javi’s incredulity. “Marriage?” I squeaked.

Javi threw back his head and let out a guffaw. His laughter attracted the attention of other patrons and servers, and continued to ring out until tears leaked from his eyes. He struggled to catch his breath.

“Propose? After a month and a half?” he asked, face flushed.

“It’s been two months,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster.

“Reese, what on earth gave you the idea—never mind,” he said. “I know your brain works in mysterious ways.”

He sobered when he realized I wasn’t laughing with him. In fact, I wished I was anywhere [_but _]sitting across from him, laughingstock of the restaurant.

I stood up and grabbed my purse from the back of the chair, wiping a renegade tear with the other hand. “I’ll just call Malcolm to come and pick me up.”

Javi stood as well and reached for my hand. “No way. I’m not letting Malcolm whisk you away in his little Leaf again. Sit back down for a second. I did want to ask you something important.”

Since I no longer had an appetite, and knew I wasn’t getting engaged, I didn’t want to stay at the restaurant any longer than necessary. But I was curious as to what Javi wanted to ask me if it wasn’t about marriage.

“So?” I prompted.

Javi cleared his throat. “Every year my parents throw this big Christmas party. They invite the extended family, all their friends, and some bigwigs in the community. I’d love for you to come and meet everyone.”

I stared at him. “Let me get this straight. You’re asking me to meet your parents?”

“And the rest of my family: my abuela, Santi, my crazy uncle Diego, and his girlfriend, Carmen. And all of my cousins.”

I let out a breath. It was the first time Javi had ever mentioned introducing me to his family. Even if we weren’t getting engaged at the moment, this was a step in that direction.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” I said.

“It is,” he agreed. “I never take anyone home unless it’s serious.”

I managed to crack a grin. “So that means you’re serious about me.”

Javi smiled at me and stroked the back of my hands with his thumbs. “It would seem that way. What do you say?”

“I say, bring on abuela…and can we get another order of fried ice cream?”

3

A week later, just two days before the Delgado family Christmas party, Zoey and our friend, Nikki Valdez, lounged on my bed while I combed through my closet.

“What am I supposed to wear to meet his family?” I asked, flinging clothes onto the floor. “I’ve never done this before.”

“You’re overthinking this,” Zoey said. “Just be you.”

I turned around and fixed her with a look. “So you’re suggesting I go to this party in my unicorn leggings and an ALF sweatshirt?”

Zoey rolled her bright blue eyes. “Obviously not. I’m just saying that it’s not as serious as you’re making it out to be.”

Nikki propped herself up on one elbow and ran a hand through her wavy, dark brown hair. “I don’t know, Zoey. She wants to make a good first impression. The clothes she shows up in are part of that impression.”

“See? Thanks, Nikki.”

Nikki gave me a nod in solidarity.

“Now help me,” I commanded.

If anyone was an expert at making a great first impression, it was Nikki. A lifestyle photographer by trade and total fashionista, she always looked like she belonged on a magazine cover. A couple of months ago, Nikki had helped me figure out a signature style for myself and dressed me for my ten-year high school reunion.

It was her turn to roll her eyes, but she stood up. My phone clattered around on my nightstand. Zoey glanced at it and gave me a devilish grin.

“It’s Javi,” she sang.

“Ooh!” I exclaimed.

Javi had been out of town for the last three days, working on a case for one of his clients. He was supposed to be coming back home the next day. I leapt over the pile of clothes at my feet and scooped up the phone.

“Hello, boyfriend!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nikki open her mouth and stick a finger in as if she were about to vomit. I ignored her; it wasn’t my fault that I could proclaim my love to the world while she had to hide her forbidden romance with a married man.

“Hey Reese,” Javi replied. His voice sounded apprehensive, like he was about to deliver bad news. My mind jumped to conclusions. Was he in the hospital somewhere? Maybe he’d thought better of it and wanted to un-invite me to his parents’ party?

“What’s wrong?” I asked. In my periphery, Zoey’s brow furrowed in concern.

Javi chuckled. “You can be really perceptive when you want to be.”

“I’ll ignore that barb. Just tell me what’s up.”

Javi sighed, and I imagined him running a hand over his stubbled chin. “It’s nothing bad. It’s just…I’m going to be here longer than I thought.”

My eyes narrowed. “Whatchu talkin’ bout, Javi?”

“We’ve run into some obstacles up here; I’m going to have to stay for a couple more days.”

Excuse me?” What did this mean for the party and meeting his parents?

“I’ll still make it in time for the party—but only just. You’ll have to meet me there.”

So I was just supposed to show up at Javi’s house without him and make his family fall in love with me on my own? I knew I was an acquired taste; I needed Javi to mediate my meeting his parents, and at the very least translate my Reese-isms.

I frantically glanced at Zoey and Nikki. Zoey had a question in her eyes and Nikki mouthed, “What?”

“Reese? You still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” And ready to throttle you through the phone.

“So I’ll get off the plane and come straight to the party. I’ll send you the address.”

“Why don’t I just come pick you up and we can go to the party together?” I asked desperately. I really didn’t want to show up at the Delgado house without Javi by my side.

“Two reasons. One: You’re never on time—”

“Hey!” I cut in.

Javi ignored me. “If [_you _]pick me up from the airport we’ll get there after the party’s over. My parents really value punctuality so that’s a no-go. And, two: Santi’s been driving my car all week. I want to make sure it’s still in good condition.”

“But—”

“You don’t even have to go in before I get there. I’ll meet you outside, okay?”

I sighed. “Okay.”

There was a muffled conversation on the other end of the phone before Javi said anything else. “Look, babe, I gotta go. I’ll talk to you again tomorrow, okay? I’ll see you on Saturday, and everything will be fine.”

“Have a good night,” I said glumly.

“Sweet dreams. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

I clicked off the call and faced Zoey. Nikki was preoccupied with my closet. “So, Javi’s not getting home until right before the party. He wants me to meet him there,” I said.

Zoey pulled a face. “Well, that’s not ideal, but what can you do?”

“Zoey, you know you want to go to this party with me,” I pleaded.

“Reese, I wasn’t even invited! Besides, meeting Hayden’s parents the first time was nerve-wracking enough, and I’m actually in a relationship with him.”

“But you’re in a relationship with me,” I wheedled.

Nikki turned back to us. “I’ll tell you what she can do—she can look fabulous. So fabulous that Javi will never want to leave her again, and that his parents will be suitably impressed.”

“See? That sounds good,” Zoey said. “And if you take a gift, that’ll show you’re thoughtful.”

A gift?” I exclaimed.

“Just a little token that says, ‘Thanks for inviting me to your home. My parents didn’t raise me in a cave,’” Nikki said. “It doesn’t have to be anything big.”

“A rotisserie chicken?” I asked.

Nikki pursed her lips before answering. “I meant more along the lines of a bottle of wine.”

Zoey nodded. “I took Hayden’s parents a nice bottle. They really enjoyed it. I’ll see if I can remember what brand it was.”

Nikki clapped her hands. “So there you go. With us on your side you can’t go wrong.”

Nikki and Zoey may have been convinced I was well on my way to winning over the Delgados, but I wasn’t so sure.

4

“Zoey, seriously, pick up! I’m standing here looking like a dumbass in the middle of the liquor store because I forgot which wine you told me to buy. Call me back!” I hissed into my phone.

It was Saturday evening, and I was supposed to be at the Delgado homestead in less than an hour. At the moment, I was walking aimlessly up and down the aisles of a local liquor store because it happened to be on the way, and I was determined to prove Javi wrong about my inability to be on time. I was trying to take Nikki and Zoey’s advice to heart by bringing a gift to the Delgados. Unfortunately, when Zoey had told me the brand of wine she’d given Hayden’s parents, I didn’t write it down because I just knew I’d remember it.

And of course I didn’t.

An overweight man wearing a wife-beater covered in suspicious stains and baggy basketball shorts ambled up my aisle and stopped next to me.

“Looking for something in particular?” he muttered around the toothpick in his mouth.

I pointedly looked him up and down. “Do you work here?”

“No.”

He stayed where he was, not saying a word, and I began to get uncomfortable.

I snatched a bottle of José Cuervo from the shelf and brandished it in order to get him to leave. “Ah! Here it is.”

The man grunted and gave a satisfied nod. “That’s the good stuff. Cheap and it’ll get you tanked.”

I frowned. I had come into the store with the intention of getting wine, but why [_not _]get some kind of spirit like tequila? Maybe Javi’s parents could add it to punch.

“Maybe I should get something a little more expensive?” I wondered aloud.

I looked at the price tags of the other bottles on the shelf. Way too rich for my blood. “Nope, this’ll have to do. Is it weird to just show up to meet someone’s parents with a bottle of tequila? Should I get a plant or something to go with it?”

My new friend planted his feet and crossed his arms over his chest. “Why don’t ya get a mixer?”

“Huh?”

“A mixer. Like strawberry or mango.”

“Good idea…” I raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t catch your name?”

“Name’s Jay,” he said with a nod. “Don’t get too crazy tonight.”

“Back ‘atcha,” I said to his retreating form.

A moment later, I was studying the mixers on the shelf below the tequila when a thought occurred to me. The man had said his name was Jay. The Phone Perv was named Jay. And though I wasn’t one to stereotype, my wife-beater-wearing friend gave off a Phone Perv vibe. Was Jay really that common of a name?

I shook my head to clear it. I didn’t have time for distractions; I was a woman on a mission. I looked back at my choices for margarita mixers. Classic lime was boring. Mango might be a little too exotic. Strawberry could be fun—its coloring made it festive, and who didn’t like strawberry?

I checked my phone one more time just to see if Zoey had texted or tried to call while Jay had distracted me. I debated texting Nikki or Malcolm, but I was running out of time, and it would take me too long to go anywhere else. I hoped the Delgados were ready to turn up.

***

Twenty minutes later, I slowed my car to a crawl along the suburban street where Javi’s parents’ house was supposed to be. I stared in awe at the neighborhood around me.

The houses weren’t “houses”—they were mansions. Mansions with manicured lawns filled with tasteful, sophisticated Christmas decorations. You wouldn’t find five hundred inflatables in one yard or a light-up Santa bent over and mooning you in their neighborhood.

I double-checked the address Javi gave me and studied the gilded street numbers glinting off mailboxes. I let out a low whistle as I approached the correct house and idled along the curb.

It was a statuesque house made of taupe brick with plenty of windows. A turret took up one corner of the house, and an awning made of black metal sat above the dark double doors.

I was in the middle of drooling over the design etched in the frosted glass of the doors when a rap on my car window made me scream. A man wearing a forest green vest, a red plaid bow tie, and leather jacket stood shivering next to my car door. I rolled down the window just enough to be able to speak to him.

“Yeah?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t the nicest greeting, but I didn’t want to come across as too nice and then have the guy ask me for money or some kind of help. My one-track mind was focused on being on time.

“Are you here for the Delgado party?” he asked. His hands were stuffed in his pockets and he hopped from foot to foot.

I hesitated. “Um, yes.”

“You’re in the right place.” The man attempted a smile that faltered due to the chattering of his lips. I couldn’t blame him. In the time I’d driven from downtown Wyndlake to its outskirts, it felt the temperature had dropped at least ten degrees. “If you’ll just step out, I’ll take your keys.”

“[_Excuse me? _]The hell you will.” I rolled up the window and put the car in reverse.

“Wait!” he cried, rapping on the window again. “I’m the valet. The Delgados hired me to park their guests’ cars. See the bow tie?”

I eyed the bow tie with suspicion. [_Anyone _]could clip on a bow tie and call himself a valet. As I readjusted my grip on the bottle of tequila so that I could use it as a weapon if the “valet” attempted to open my car door, a familiar figure leisurely strolled up behind the man in the bow tie.

“Reese—you’re here on time,” Javi said. He looked pleasantly surprised, and more scrumptious than usual as he was clean-shaven and his hair was perfectly parted and gelled into place. He glanced back and forth between the valet and me. “Is everything okay? You haven’t turned off the car.”

I let my grip on the bottle relax and pulled the key from the ignition. With as much dignity as I could muster, I grabbed my brown paper bag—I’d forgotten to purchase some kind of wrapper or gift bag ahead of time—and exited the car.

I narrowed my eyes at the valet and held out my keys. “Be careful with her.”

He tried to grab the keys from my hand, but I didn’t let go. Javi pried them from my fingers and firmly placed them in the middle of the man’s palm with one hand. With the other on the small of my back, he guided me up the winding driveway that led to his parents’ front door.

“You ready for this?” he whispered in my ear.

“God, no,” I said. “You never told me your parents live in a freaking mansion. Now I’m nervous to the tenth power.”

“Don’t be,” Javi said, his lips against my cheek, his hand at my back still steadying me. “They’re going to love you just like I do. It’s so good to see you.”

Love?! Did he just

The door flung open and a lovely older woman in a forest green and gold gown flew out. Javi released me in order to catch her before she could go flying down the stone steps. “Javier! Mijo, you look so handsome tonight. It’s so good to see you.”

While she covered his face in kisses, I stood off to the side smiling awkwardly at the older version of Javi standing next to her.

When Javi finally pulled back, he clasped my left hand. “Mom, Dad, this is my girlfriend, Reese.”

“How do you do, Señor and Señora Delgado?” I resisted the strong urge to curtsy and settled for a handshake from Mr. Delgado, and a hug from Mrs. Delgado.

“Please call me, Ana, short for Ana-Maria. And this is Luis.” Mrs. Delgado stood back and eyed the brown bag in Javi’s hand. “What’s that?”

“Oh, it’s nothing—” I started, immediately berating myself for not going with the rotisserie chicken.

“Reese brought you all a gift.” Javi extended the bag to his mother. She glanced at it with a bemused smile and accepted it.

My own smile froze on my face as she grabbed the neck of the tequila bottle and slid it out from the bag. Her mouth formed an “O” and she looked at me, then Javi. Javi turned to look at me as well, his eyes ever-so-slightly widened as if to say, What the hell were you thinking?

“There’s margarita mix in there too,” I said faintly as a blush crept up my neck.

Ana smiled. “Well, then, I guess we’ll be having margaritas later. Where are my manners? Come on in.”

Ana and Luis turned to go back inside, Javi and I following a couple feet behind.

“Really? Tequila and margarita mix? You do know that tequila is a Mexican spirit?” Javi whispered in an amused tone. “Did you forget you’re dating a proud Cuban man?”

“Shut up,” I whispered back. “I want to die.”

Javi grinned at me. “Well, there’s nowhere to go from here but up, right?”

One would think so.

***

“Reese, it’s nice to finally meet you,” Javi’s younger brother, Santiago, said with a smirk.

Santi looked like the perfect blend of his parents; there was no denying that he and Javi were brothers. Javi had said that his little brother was incorrigible, and with the mischievous sparkle in his eye and single dimple in his right cheek, I didn’t doubt it.

I waved the hand that wasn’t holding a steaming cup of spiked apple cider. “Nice to meet you too.”

“I heard you’re ready to party,” Santi continued, putting his hands in his pockets.

The sip of apple cider I’d just taken went down the wrong pipe, and I launched into a coughing fit. I managed to gulp down some air. “Did Javi say that?”

Santi raised his eyebrows. “Javi? No, my mom.”

I should have known better than to take another sip of my Fireball-laced drink until I’d finished the conversation. I clutched at my chest as I was wracked with more coughs.

Santi gave me a cheeky salute and sauntered away, leaving me standing alone in the grand foyer of the mansion. Ten minutes earlier, Javi had been swept along by some old family friends, promising me he’d return in a “just a second.”

I felt conspicuous in the center of the room, even though there were clumps of people engaged in conversations all around me. When I’d put on the red wrap-dress with white polka dots earlier in the evening, I’d felt sexy, confident, and festive. In a sea of men wearing sports jackets and button-downs, and women wearing sleek gowns in deep, rich colors, I stood out from the crowd—and not in a good way. It didn’t help my self-esteem that Javi’s mom was apparently telling people—or at the very least, Santi—that I was some kind of party animal.

I smelled Javi’s musky cologne before he could loop his hand around my waist. I relaxed against his chest, and took a deep breath. Javi turned me around so that I was facing him.

“That was a big sigh,” he said.

My shoulders drooped. “Your mother thinks I’m an alcoholic.”

Javi put his finger below my chin and tilted my head up. “She does not.”

“Yes, she does. She told your brother so!”

Javi opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off by a heavily accented, gruff voice.

“Javier!” the man boomed.

“Uncle Herman!” Javi let go of me and embraced his uncle. Beaming, he turned to me. “Reese, this is my dad’s oldest brother, Herman. Santi and I used to spend a few weeks at his house in Boca Raton each summer.”

Uncle Herman nodded his head at me before returning his attention to Javi. “What happened to Elena?”

The swallow of cider I’d just taken went down the wrong hole again. That was it; I was getting rid of the rest of my drink. I thought about pouring it out, but didn’t want to waste perfectly good alcohol. I tossed my head back and downed the contents of my cup.

“Elena and I broke up several months ago. This is my girlfriend, Reese.” Javi smiled at me reassuringly and grabbed my hand.

Herman adopted a smile phonier than my worst fake asthma attack. “I’m glad you found someone new, but it saddens me; you and Elena were a great pair. I thought you two were going to end up at the altar.”

What the hell, Herman? I was standing right there. I met Javi’s gaze and widened my eyes.

“Well, Elena and I are over,” Javi said firmly. He made a show of putting his arm around my shoulders. “I can’t wait for you to get to know Reese. She’s been a breath of fresh air.”

Herman nodded at me and gazed off into the distance. “I see your Uncle Diego over there with his new girlfriend, Carmen. He owes me thirty dollars.”

With a pat to Javi’s shoulder, and no further acknowledgment to me, Herman set off across the room.

I threw my hands up in the air and gritted my teeth. “Really, Javi?”

Javi massaged my shoulder. “Honestly, I think Uncle Herman wanted to date Elena himself. Ignore him—Diego is my favorite uncle. [_He’s _]the one you want to impress.”

“Mmm,” I murmured, my eyes going through the doorway to the refreshments in the formal dining room. Javi followed my gaze and gave my shoulder another squeeze.

“I see a former client of mine getting ready to leave so I’m going to say goodbye. Meet you at the snack table?”

With a sigh, and a hankering for more alcohol, I drifted toward the Delgados’ formal dining room where a buffet of finger foods was spread along a massive oak table. I was piling up my plate with bacon-wrapped dates when I felt a tap on my elbow.

A glance over my shoulder revealed a tiny, Cuban version of Golden Girls’ Sophia Petrillo peering over wire-rimmed spectacles.

“Javi’s…girlfriend?” she asked haltingly in broken English.

“If you’re looking for Elena, sorry to disappoint you,” I said bitterly. I added three more dates to my plate. “I’m the replacement model, Reese.”

The old woman narrowed her eyes in confusion, then brightened. “Javi is good boy. He needs good woman. He will be good father.”

I let out another huge sigh. “I’m starting to think the family doesn’t think I fit the bill.”

The old woman looked even more perplexed. I shook my head.

“Never mind,” I said. I raised my plate and inclined my head, “Nice to meet you.”

I turned to go and bumped into Javi’s chest.

“I see you met my abuela! [¿Abuela, qué piensas? _]What do you think?[”_]

Oh my God. I had snapped at Javi’s grandmother.

Nodding her head, Abuela smiled, and rambled something off in rapid-fire Spanish. Javi said something back to her, and she giggled. She said something else that I couldn’t understand, but I [_did _]catch the name “Elena.”

Javi ducked so she could pat his cheeks. When he straightened up, he smiled at me. “She thinks you’re pretty.”

Prettier than Elena? I wanted to ask. I was sure Elena could speak perfect Spanish to converse with Javi’s grandmother, and I was even surer she would never have brought tequila to the family Christmas party.

“C’mon, I want introduce you to my Uncle Diego.”

As Javi dragged me away, I longingly glanced at the bottles of champagne chilling in ice on the sideboard. I wondered how long I would have to stand around with a fake smile on my face, listening to how I was no Elena and not good enough for Javier before it was acceptable to make my leave.

“Uncle Diego, meet my girlfriend, Reese.”

“Reese, great to meet you!” Diego exclaimed with a smile and hearty handshake. Good vibes radiated off him, and I was glad that [_someone _]was excited to meet me.

I grinned. “It’s great to meet you, as well.”

With buoyed spirits, I turned to the woman next to him and stuck out my hand. It might have been my imagination, the fact that I’d only seen her from across the room, or the booze, but she didn’t look like the same person, and I could’ve sworn she’d been wearing a different color dress.

“And you must be his girlfriend, Carmen. You’re gorgeous!”

The woman didn’t take my hand. Instead, her lips flattened into such a thin line that it didn’t look like she had a mouth. The easy-going grin dropped off Diego’s face, and he paled. Next to me, Javi grabbed my shoulder and squeezed—not in a comforting way, but with a warning to “Abort! Abort!”

I looked between the three of them. Apparently I’d said the wrong thing, but I wasn’t sure where I’d made my error.

The woman cut her eyes at Diego and cleared her throat. “I’m Soledad, Diego’s wife.

My mouth dropped open. I turned to Javi in horror. “Diego’s wha—”

With eyes only for Soledad, Diego put a hand on the small of her back. “Let’s go get some champagne,” he said in a soothing voice.

“Get your hands off of me,” Soledad hissed as she jerked away from him. “When did your mistress become common knowledge? Are you purposely trying to embarrass me?”

Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit.

Soledad stalked toward the mudroom where the coats were being kept. Diego was right on her heels. He only looked back once, his eyes so intense I thought I’d be vaporized where I stood.

Javi closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Reese, that was Diego’s wife.”

“I think I got that, Javier,” I snapped. “Why the hell was your Uncle Herman talking about Diego’s girlfriend then?”

“Carmen was here earlier; Diego brought her because Soledad wasn’t going to be here—”

“Wait a second, so the whole family knows that Uncle Diego’s a two-timer, and they’re okay with that?”

Javi sighed. “It’s complicated.”

“And I make a simple mistake, but now I’m the worst person in the world?” I asked, swallowing down the lump beginning to form in my throat.

“No one said that—”

I flung my hands out by my sides as I tried to fight back tears. “I can’t do this Javi. I’m not good enough. I’m not Elena. I’m sure she was best friends with Soledad [_and _]Carmen.”

Javi glanced around the living room as if nervous someone would witness my breakdown. “No one’s asking you to be her. You’re you, and that’s all I want you to be,” he said in a low, urgent voice.

“Javi, stop saying stuff like that. It just makes it harder.” A tear slipped down my cheek.

Javi’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Makes what harder? What are you talking about, Reese?”

“I can’t do this,” I repeated as the tears came faster. The room felt like it was closing in on me. “I’ve got to get out of here. You enjoy the rest of the party.”

My head tucked into my chest, I ran for the mudroom, Javi close behind me.

“Reese, where are you going? Wait a minute!”

“Javi? What’s going on?” his mother asked, tagging along behind us.

Great, just what I needed. I ignored the both of them as I pulled on my coat and scarf.

“Nothing, Mom. Just give us a second.”

Ana fell back, but I saw her hover just at the entrance to the tiny room.

“I can’t let you leave like this,” Javi said. “What can I do?”

I finally finished buttoning my coat and looked him in the eye. I was tired of feeling like I couldn’t do anything right. I swiped at my eye with my scarf.

“You can let me go,” I said.

“But that’s not what I want,” Javi said. “I want you.”

I sniffled, and opened the door to the outside. A cold wind swept through the small space. “Just go back to your family. I’ll be fine.”

Like Cinderella running from her prince as the clock struck twelve, I took off down the driveway, not caring if anyone was watching from the mansion’s giant windows. It didn’t matter; I wouldn’t be seeing any of them again anyway.

5

When I opened the door to the apartment, Zoey looked up from her book and frowned. “You’re home early. Did everything go okay at the party?”

I kicked off my boots and struggled out of my coat, dropping it on the sofa. “No, it did not go okay,” I spat out, stalking to my room.

I slammed my bedroom door and lay on my bed. Zoey opened the door and leaned against the wall next to the bed.

“What happened?” she asked.

“What didn’t happen is a better question. It was a disaster!”

Zoey came and sat next to me on the bed. “So tell me about it.”

“Well, you didn’t answer your phone—”

Zoey frowned at me. “Reese, you knew I was working at the hospital this afternoon.”

You didn’t answer your phone,” I repeated in a louder voice. “So I bought tequila and margarita mix.”

Zoey’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth the way she did when she was trying to hide her smile. “You didn’t.”

“Strawberry.”

That did it; Zoey burst out laughing. “Oh my God. Did you actually give it his parents?”

“Yes. And now his mom thinks I’m a hard partier who was brought up without any manners.”

Zoey’s laughter died away and she nudged me. “So you gave Javi’s mom some liquor; she’ll get over it.”

“You know me, Zo—that’s not all I did.”

“Oh God. What else?”

I told Zoey about outing Uncle Diego to his wife, snapping at Abuela, and stupid Uncle Herman. She was rolling around on the bed, howling with laughter by the time I finished.

“God, Reese, how do you get yourself into these situations?” she asked between gasps for breath.

The corner of my mouth quirked up involuntarily. Reflecting on it from the comfort of my bed, the whole situation seemed straight out of a sitcom.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But I sure wish I did so I could avoid them. I can’t face Javi’s family again…not that he’d even want me to.”

“Oh, stop it. You’ve done embarrassing stuff before. Remember that time you drunk-dialed Quinn?”

I dropped my head into my hands. “Don’t remind me!”

Zoey patted my knee. “But you survived it. It’s going to be okay. What was Javi’s take on everything?”

I groaned and flopped backward. “I don’t know,” I whined. “I got so overwhelmed that I shut him out and I ran off.”

Zoey stood up and shook her head maniacally. “Nope, we’re not doing this whole ignore-Javi-for-days-and-let-Zoey-fix-it-thing again. You’re going to call Javi and clear the air.”

“I just can’t talk to him right now, Zo.” I climbed under my covers and snuggled my plush ALF doll.

A second later, the covers were pulled off, and I was exposed to the world. Zoey loomed above me.

“Don’t make me get my whistle,” she threatened. She placed my phone in my hand and started for the door. “Call him, text him, I don’t care [_what _]you do. Just communicate.”

I peeked at my phone, then sat up and glared at her. “Look, he already texted. He wants me to meet him at Cuppa tomorrow morning. God, Zo, he probably wants to break up with me.”

Zoey rolled her eyes. “You always jump to extremes! I’m sure he just wants to talk things over since you ran out on him. Talk. To. Him.”

She left my room, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Before I could truly get comfy, she stuck her head back inside. “You better go. At the very least you’ll get a break-up breakfast out of it.”

I grabbed my brush from my nightstand and launched it, but Zoey slammed the door closed before it reached her.

***

The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed with a heavy heart. I felt like I was heading to my own execution. Normally just thinking about Javi made me feel all warm and safe, but at the moment I felt sick to my stomach with dread.

When I went to my bathroom to get ready, I saw a yellow sticky note waiting for me on my mirror.

You got this! Zoey had scrawled.

At least one of us thinks so, I thought to myself.

After I took a quick shower and threw on some clean-looking clothes from the floor, I was ready to go.

I chewed my lip and drummed my fingers on the steering wheel during the short drive to Cuppa. Was Javi really going to dump me at the place we first met?

Standing outside the coffee shop’s picture window, I took a deep breath and shifted from foot to foot. Big girl panties, Reese, big girl panties.

Before I could think about it anymore, I pulled the door open and entered. Since it was Sunday, the line at the counter nearly reached the entrance of the establishment.

“Reese, over here,” Javi called. He waved his hand from his seat at a small table for two next to the wall. He already had a white bakery box and two sleeved cups in front of him.

My heart hammered in my chest as I approached him; I really didn’t know what to expect from this meeting, but I knew that I didn’t want to let Javi go. I could only hope that he felt the same way despite my behavior the night before.

Javi stood up when I got to the table. He hesitated a moment before saying anything.

I held my breath.

“Can I give you a hug?” he asked.

My head whipped back in surprise at the greeting. Was he trying to catch me off-guard so I’d be discombobulated and less likely to react when he dumped me?

“Of course,” I replied.

Javi put his arms around me, and I melted against his chest.

“Please don’t leave me,” I murmured.

Javi pulled back with a baffled expression on his face. “Where’d that come from?”

“I totally embarrassed myself—and you—last night in front of all your friends and family. I understand if you want to break up with me, but I really, really like you.”

“Reese, quit talking crazy.” Javi nodded at the seat across the table. “Sit down and drink your latte.”

Obediently, I sat and picked up the cup. Javi sat too and ran a hand through his hair.

“I [_do _]want to talk to you about last night—”

I put a palm out to stop him. “I’m so sorry. I really tried to make a good impression.”

Javi chuckled. “You certainly made an impression, all right.”

My shoulders drooped. “Was I [_that _]awful? Did you all talk about me after I left? I’m [_so _]mortified.”

“Life happens, Reese. It’s how you bounce back that shows what you’re made of.”

“How the hell am I going to bounce back from bringing your mom tequila, or mistaking your uncle’s wife for his mistress?”

Javi scrubbed a hand over his stubble. “Yeah…the Diego and Soledad thing didn’t go so well. They’ve decided to separate.”

I gasped. This was worse than I thought. “Oh my God, I broke up their marriage.”

Javi shook his head. “No, no, no. Diego and Soledad have been having problems for years. In case you didn’t realize it, he’s kind of a playboy.” Javi paused. “They should have separated a long time ago.”

“Huh,” I said. I took a sip of my drink.

“And as for my mom, well, she actually said that you remind her of herself in her twenties.” Javi smiled.

“What? You’re pulling my leg,” I said.

“I’m not! She said you’ve got spunk.”

I tilted my head to the side. “She did not. Really?”

“She wants to get to know you. She mentioned having us over for dinner…and said you’re in charge of making the margaritas.” The corner of Javi’s mouth quirked up. “It probably would have been a smarter idea in the first place for you to meet my parents in a more intimate setting.”

Suddenly hopeful, I looked at him. He was making future plans for us. “Wait a minute—we’re not breaking up?”

Javi frowned and reached across the table for my hand. “One crazy evening doesn’t negate a whole relationship. And none of it was even that serious.”

“I was mean to your grandmother,” I whispered. “That’s pretty serious. But I heard Elena’s name—”

Javi pursed his lips. “Reese, my abuela was saying that you have a nice face and seemed kinder than Elena. I told you, Elena is my past, and [_you _]are my future.”

I felt a familiar spark in my chest—the same spark I’d felt when I realized I was falling for Javier.

“So we’re good?” I asked again, just to make sure we were on the same page.

Javi gave me a huge smile. “We’ve always been good.” He pushed the bakery box toward me. “Have an éclair.”

After the emotional cyclone that’d taken its toll, I seriously needed some sustenance. I returned his smile, opened the box, and gasped.

A silver chain stretched between two chocolate-raspberry éclairs. At the end of it lay two stars melded together, with a tiny gemstone in the center. When I picked up the necklace and made a closer inspection of it, I saw that the stars were slightly misshapen, and it wasn’t a gemstone in the middle, but a rock.

I looked at Javi. “What is this?”

“It’s a handcrafted necklace,” he said. “And this—” he pointed to the rock, “—is a piece of a Campo del Cielo meteorite from Argentina.”

“Oh my God. This is from Space,” I breathed. “It’s beautiful.”

“It is,” Javi said. “And it’s one-of-a-kind. Just like you.”

I let the chain drape over my hand and gazed at the piece of meteorite. “Why are you giving me this?”

“Well, it was your Christmas present, but I figured I’d give it to you early to show you how much you mean to me. It’s not a ring, but…”

I smiled at Javi and went around to his side of the table where I put my arms around him and squeezed as tight as I could. I leaned back and looked up into his warm brown eyes.

“It’s perfect,” I whispered. “Put it on me.”

I handed over the necklace and turned around. Javi’s hands were steady as he clasped it around my neck and placed the pendant just so. He rested his hands on my shoulders and leaned close to my ear.

“You want to go back to my place?” he purred. “We can bring the éclairs.”

I spun around and squeezed him again. “I love it when you talk dirty to me. Let’s go.”

About the Author

A Durham, North Carolina native, and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jax Abbey bleeds Carolina blue. By day she molds the young, bright minds of the future, but at night you can find her furiously pounding the keys as she funnels zany ideas and quirky characters from her brain to the computer. When Jax isn’t tutoring her students, or convincing her characters to simmer down, she loves to spend time with her significant other, Tyler, and her TinyDog.

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I’m Scheming of a White Christmas

Kate O’Keeffe

1

When was it going to snow? It was almost Christmas time, I was in New York City, it was freaking freezing—a winter the likes of which this New Zealand girl has never known—and still there was no snow? I mean, come on!

I’d been living here in this fabulous city, in an apartment the size of a child’s low- budget dolls’ house, for a grand total of two weeks and four days. Don’t get me wrong, I totally loved it. New York City was everything I remembered it to be and so, so much more. The last time I was here I was an exchange student living in Westchester, a senior at the local high school there. I came to New York City only a handful of times but it was enough for my heart to become totally enraptured. I’d spent the last ten years working out how to get myself back here. Permanently.

And here I was.

I wanted a white Christmas. It was one of the huge selling cards for moving here at this time of year. Coming from New Zealand, I had never experienced an actual, bona fide white Christmas before. Where I’m from, Christmas happens in summer and Santa is more likely to arrive on a surfboard than a sleigh, those nimble reindeer hanging ten behind (actually, I think it may be more like hanging one or two, but you get the idea).

I read an article once about positive visualisation, the idea you can make something happen if you think about it long and hard enough. It had never worked for me in high school, no matter how many times I’d visualised Brady McKinnon kissing me, but I was desperate enough for snow to give it a shot now.

I closed my eyes, envisioning snow in all its white, winter wonderland glory: snowing in Central Park, sprinkling the iconic Rockefeller Center with a light dusting. I’d never seen driven snow but I was more than willing to give it try.

I opened my eyes. Still nothing, not even a sad and lonely flake.

Just as I was considering what a snow dance might look like, I heard someone beside me clear his throat.

I snapped my head up, embarrassed, noticing a figure standing in front of me. I slid my dark hair behind my ear, hoping he hadn’t noticed me daydreaming about snow—suspecting I’d just been totally busted.

“Happy Holidays! Can I help you, sir?” I asked brightly, remembering my Marlowe Department Store’s obligation to be cheerleader-at-a-pep-rally perky at all times.

“Yes. That would be great,” the man in front of me replied.

I quickly sized him up. He was the total cliché: tall, dark, and handsome, a smile spread across his Hollywood star face.

I looked into his eyes. The hamsters in my brain began to whir on their wheel as a flood of memories washed over me.

Oh. My. God.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have an appointment. I think I’m meant to have one of those to use your personal shopping services, right?” He looked at me questioningly.

In an instant I was back at my Westchester high school, seven years ago, with braces, zits, and a frankly ill-advised hairstyle, lusting after Brady McKinnon: football god and all ’round Mr Popularity.

I blinked at him. “Hi, ah… B-Brady,” I stammered, flushing as red as the synthetic Santa suit Randy Rodney was currently sporting on Level Two.

The man standing in front of me shot me a questioning look, his smile slipping a fraction. “Do I know you?”

“I, ah, yes. Sort of. We went to high school together. Senior year? I was an exchange student from New Zealand. We were in history class together, I think.” Ha! Like I would have ever forgotten. “So yes, we knew each other, but only a little.”

I cringed[. So _]not[ smooth, Tilly._]

Brady McKinnon had the grace to smile, his eyes sparkling. “Of course. How are you—” he glanced down at my chest, “Tilly?”

He remembered me? Brady McKinnon remembered me? And not only that, he’d checked me out? The hamsters shot down en masse to my belly.

When I didn’t respond he asked, “That is your name, right? Tilly?”

My hand darted to the nametag on my lapel. Of course. My heart sank. “That’s what the nametag says!” My tone was bright, belying the disappointment rushing through my body, lancing vital organs with its progress. “Yes, it’s Tilly. Tilly Grayson.”

He gave me a sideways glance. “History class. Yeah, I remember you. How are you?”

“Good. Great. Amazing, actually.” I suspected my eyes had taken on a maniacal glint.

He nodded at me. “Great to hear. It’s good to see you again. So, Tilly. I need some new clothes and this is the personal shopping area, right?”

My mouth was so dry it was like it was filled with sand. “Yes, yes it is,” I managed.

I had to snap out of this.

He smiled, looking relieved. “I could really do with some help. I’m useless at dressing myself.” He chuckled self-deprecatingly, his smile broadening into a grin.

My eyes skipped over his body, my heart rate kicking up a notch or two. He was dressed the way most guys our age are in a sweatshirt, jacket and jeans, but somehow his broad shoulders, athletic build and long legs did stuff to his clothes. He looked so good he could have stepped out of Men’s Health magazine. I sighed. He’d barely changed since high school. In fact, I’d say he’d even got better.

Damn him! After what he did to me back then he could still make my legs turn to jelly.

“Ah, Tilly?”

I shook my head, coming back from my unpleasant walk down memory lane. I caught my boss out of the corner of my eye, shooting me a disapproving look.

Snap to it, Tilly.

“Sorry.” My blush threatened to spark internal combustion. It’s probably not the best look, spontaneously bursting into flames in the middle of the menswear department. “You were saying?”

“Do you think you could help me?”

Pulling myself together with super-human strength I replied, “Of course I can.” My tone was purposefully light and breezy, like Brady McKinnon didn’t make me want to crawl under a rock and die—after I’d kissed the lips off him for several hours, that is. It was complicated.

“Awesome.”

I detected a rather sizeable note of relief in his smooth-as-silk voice.

“Why don’t you tell me what sort of thing you’re after and I’ll get some choices for you?”

“Well, I need a suit for my sister’s wedding. My sis said to use you guys as I have no clue about fashion. I’m under strict instructions to look good.”

“Sure, of course,” I trilled, my voice unnaturally high. I couldn’t imagine Brady McKinnon not looking good. “Let’s get your size worked out and I can see what we can do.”

“Sure.”

“Okay. Good. Great.” I grinned at him like some sort of love-struck loon for a moment. Thankfully I managed to remember to do my job. “Right then. Come with me. You can sit down and relax and we can talk about what you need. Would you like a cup of coffee while you wait?”

“Sure, thanks. White, no sugar.” He took a seat in one of the comfortable chairs in the waiting area.

With shaking hands I poured coffee into a cup, spilling it over the sides. “Dammit,” I muttered under my breath. I grabbed a cloth and mopped it up, shooting Brady a furtive glance. He smiled back at me. Busted. Again.

I poured in the milk, gave it a quick stir then placed the cup and saucer on the table next to his seat. Trying not to shake with nerves, I sat down opposite him.

“Tell me, what sort of suit did you have in mind?”

He bit his lip. “Umm, one with a jacket and pants?” He grinned at me. His teeth were so perfectly straight and white they were almost blinding.

I laughed, my body relaxing about seven point three per cent—don’t ask me how I measured it. “All right. That’s a start. Maybe you could tell me a little about the wedding? Is it a traditional church wedding? A registry office affair? On the beach?”

“Probably not on the beach in New York in December.”

“Ah, no. Got it.”

“It’s a traditional church, white wedding kind of thing. My sis wants me to be in a regular suit.”

He gave me his colour preferences, sizing and budget. I took notes, trying to look as though Brady McKinnon’s sudden appearance in my life hadn’t knocked the wind right out of me, my confidence deflating like a punctured balloon.

All the relevant information gathered, I left him to his second cup of coffee and blueberry mini muffin as I headed out on my mission.

I went straight for the suits, channelling the successful personal shopper I am—usually. I know fashion and I know what works on men. I’d been a personal shopper in my native New Zealand for years. Put any man in a well-tailored suit and he’ll look a million bucks. Not that Brady needed a suit to look good.

I selected about six different suits and set him up in a dressing room, throwing in a couple of shirts, ties, and shoes to complete the look.

I stood and waited patiently for him to come out, thoughts running through my head. I had the biggest crush on him in high school. He still looked the same, only better. He’d made my senior year pretty darn hellish. Did he really remember me?

I tried not to picture him in his boxers, what his abs must look like, how broad his shoulders were, how tight his…

His voice punctured my thoughts. “What do you think of his one? I quite like it.”

Brady stood in front of me dressed in one of the suits, an uncertain look on his good-looking-enough-to-be-a-daytime-soap-star’s face. With the cut of the suit emphasising his athletic build and the white shirt showing off his olive skin to perfection, he could give James freaking Bond a run for his money.

My breath caught in my throat. “It’s good,” I squeaked.

He looked from his reflection to me in surprise.

I cleared my throat. “Sorry. Something… caught,” I bluffed, my blush returning with a vengeance. “The cut of the suit works well with your… ah… physique.” Nice. “And it fits you well across the shoulders.”

“You don’t think it’s too tight?” He flexed his muscles like he was The Hulk. It took a mammoth effort to push the image of him breaking out of the suit in a fit of sexy, manly rage from my mind.

“No, not at all. You have to feel comfortable. You’ll be in this suit all evening.”

“I’ll go try on the next one.”

We repeated the same exercise for all six suits. Each and every time he stepped out of the changing room, he looked just as hot. And each and every time he closed the door to change, I gave myself a stern talking to.

Sure, he’s still my dream guy but he was a total ass back then. And he probably still is today.

Finally, after wrestling with my emotions—and libido—for what felt like a week, he decided on the first suit and purchased it along with one of the shirts, a tie, and a pair of shoes.

With sweaty hands, I handed him his tissue-wrapped purchases inside the store’s Marlowe monogrammed paper bag.

As he was about to leave, he turned to me. “Hey, there’s this Christmas party coming up. There’ll be a few people from high school there. It’ll be fun. Do you think you might like to come?”

I blinked at him, speechless. Brady McKinnon was asking me out?

“Tilly?” he asked uncertainly when I didn’t respond.

“Sorry. Ah, thanks, I…” I searched my brain for an excuse, those hamsters bouncing off the walls of my belly like a bunch of wrestlers in the ring. All I came up with was a lame: “I’m sorry, I’m busy that night.”

He chuckled, shaking his head. “I haven’t told you when it is yet.”

How do you get that confident?

“Ah.” I shot him an embarrassed smile, cursing my pale complexion and easy blush-ability.

“Come on. It’ll be fun. It’s at Tobey Thomas’s parents’ roof garden. The view alone from up there is worth it.”

Tobey Thomas. I narrowed my eyes as I recalled the strapping captain of the football team, one of Brady’s cronies in high school. Seeing Tobey ‘The Tobester’ Thomas was right up there with having hot needles inserted under my fingernails, as far as I was concerned. No, scrub that: hot needles under my fingernails would be a vacation in comparison with being in the same room as The Tobester again.

Without waiting for my response, he picked a pen up from the counter. “Have you got a piece of paper?”

On automatic pilot, I pulled a notepad out from under the cash register and handed it to him.

He wrote something on the pad. Pushing it over towards me, he said, “Here. Say you’ll come.”

Geez, for a guy who quite possibly couldn’t remember me an hour ago, he sure was persistent.

I plastered on my best Miss Universe smile. “Thank you, Brady. I’ll take a look at my calendar and be in touch.”

He beamed at me. “Awesome.” He picked up his bag. “And thanks for this. You were a great help. It was real nice seeing you again.”

I watched as he walked away, my heart rate returning to normal for the first time since I’d clamped eyes on him. I glanced down at the notepad. Without even reading it, I ripped the page off and scrunched it up, throwing it into the trash.

What sort of masochist would want to see Brady McKinnon surrounded by all his high school buddies again? Not me, that’s for sure.

***

I dropped my lunch tray with an audible thud on the table. Lana almost leapt out of her staff cafeteria chair.

“Whoa, there!” she yelped.

“What? Oh, sorry.” I sat down heavily opposite her.

She peered at my tray. “What exactly are you eating for lunch today?”

I glanced down. On automatic pilot I’d picked up a jelly donut, a bowl of plain rice, and two chocolate fudge brownies. “Umm, this?”

She shrugged. “Okay. Your diabetic funeral.” She continued to munch on her sandwich. “Rodney’s been at it again. This time he felt me up while I was leaning over to hand a candy cane to a three-year old. Classy, huh?”

Lana worked as an elf on Level Two with one of the store’s Santas, a guy we’d nicknamed ‘Randy Rodney’. And for good reason: Lana spent half her time fending off passes from him. Despite rejection after rejection, he persisted with his creepy come-ons. He was about a gazillion years older than her and, well, looked like Santa. It wasn’t going to happen.

I could see the headline now: “HORNY SANTA TRIES TO SEDUCE YOUNG ELF. “Forbidden love is better than candy canes,” Santa told Ten News of his love for his elf.”

I shuddered. It was all kind of icky.

Lana and I had met on my first day in the job and, lucky for me, she was in the market for a new roommate and I was in the market for a place to live. She was a native New Yorker and knew all the best places to go. She had taken me under her wing and I was eternally grateful.

Lana finished her sandwich and took a sip of her coffee. “Man, they could seal roads with this crap. Still, it’s caffeine and I need it today. Anyway, what’s up with you? How’s the crazy world of men’s fashion?”

“It’s—” I paused, thinking about my encounter with Mr High School Heart Throb this morning, “—weird.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Sounds interesting.”

“I helped this guy I used to know in high school find a suit for his sister’s wedding.”

“And?” The bells on her costume jingled as she flicked some sandwich crumbs off her lapel.

“I don’t think he remembered me. I mean, he said he did, but it wasn’t convincing.”

“And that bothered you? Hell, I don’t even remember my best friend from high school.”

I darted her a look. “That’s not true, is it?”

“Nah, you got me. So he didn’t remember you.” She shrugged. “Big deal.”

“It’s more than that. He was kind of a jerk to me back then.”

She raised her eyebrows at me. “What did he do?”

“I don’t think I want to tell you.” I took a bite of the donut.

“That bad, huh?”

“Kind of. At least it felt pretty bad at the time.”

“A problem shared is a problem halved.”

“I guess.” I knew I sounded unconvincing. What could it hurt telling Lana about what had happened? It was seven years ago, for goodness sake. I took a deep breath. “Okay. When I was seventeen I had a bit of a crush on him.”

She raised her eyebrows. “How big?”

“Not that big.”

“Really?” She doesn’t look convinced.

“Alright, maybe quite big.”

She grinned at me. “You were head over heels in love with him, right?”

“Yeah,” I conceded. I pushed some rice around the bowl. “I thought all my Christmases had come at once when he asked me to go to the Winter Dance.”

She scrunched up her face. “I think I know what’s coming next.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, he stood you up, right?”

“No. Worse. Sheryl Linklater, one of the cheerleaders, told me he was on a dare to ask the nerdiest girl in school to the dance only to publicly dump her beforehand.”

You were the nerdiest girl in school?”

“Kind of. Not the nerdiest exactly, but definitely not one of the cool kids. I didn’t have the best haircut back then, I had a bad case of acne and I was a little more… chunky.”

She laughed. “Dude! You were the ugly swan. And now you’re beautiful.”

“I was the ugly duckling.”

“No, swan.”

“Duckling.”

“I don’t know how the story goes in New Zealand, but here it’s about a swan.”

I decided to let it go.

Lana pushed her cup of coffee away across the table in disgust. “Caffeine or no caffeine, I cannot drink this. So what happened next?”

“Brady went to the dance with Sheryl, of course, and they told everyone about the ‘fun’ prank they’d pulled on me. I was the laughing stock of the school for weeks. I was so humiliated I wanted to get on the first plane and head back home to New Zealand.”

“This Brady guy sounds like a prize douche bag.”

I nodded at her. It sounded weird to hear an elf say ‘douche bag’. “Oh, yes. The thing is, he asked me to this party.”

“He did?” She laughed, her eyes bright. It sounded kind of evil. “Oh, my god. You have to go.”

I shook my head, shuddering at the very thought of it. “No way! It would be horrible. Beyond horrible. ”

“Tilly, look at me.” Her voice was serious as she fixed me with her gaze. She looked intense and kind of freaky. It was unnerving. “You need to go. You have to show this Brady guy how awesome you are now.”

I shook my head, scrunching my eyes shut.

“Plus, I think a little revenge could be in order.”

My eyes sprung open. “Revenge?”

She leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms. “Exactly. This party is the perfect opportunity for you. Let’s convene at nineteen hundred hours to discuss our battle plan.”

“Lana, what are you talking about? I don’t even want to go to this party. And what’s up with the military terminology?”

“Just being professional. And yes you do. Don’t you want to see how it feels when you treat him the way he treated you?”

A smile teased the edges of my mouth at the thought of humiliating Brady in front of his friends, making him feel just as bad as I had back in high school. I’d fantasized about doing just that many, many times. And it had always felt so good.

“See? You want to, I know you do,” Lana encouraged. “And I’ll be there for moral support. Oh, and for documentary purposes too.”

“You’re going to film it?”

“Of course. What’s the point of revenge if you can’t share it with your closest five hundred friends on social media?”

I scoffed, then paused, deep in thought. Did he remember me? Or was I so forgettable he’d faked it, chancing on the fact we’d been in history class together? I bit my lip. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Lana bounced in her chair, clapping her hands together like an excited seal. Several people turned to look at us.

“You are not going to regret this, Tilly Grayson.”

My body gave an involuntary tingle as an image of Brady’s smiling face popped into my head. “I hope not, Lana. I hope not.”

***

At precisely nineteen hundred hours that night, Lana was standing in our tiny kitchen when I came through the front door of our apartment. I was exhausted from a long day of dressing clients—and obsessing about Brady McKinnon.

To be honest, my mind was a quagmire of conflicting thoughts. Yes, I wanted revenge for my teenage self, and yes, Brady totally deserved it. But seeing him again had brought back those feelings I had about him all that time ago: lust, anger, humiliation. But most of all, lust.

I managed to rescue the crumpled bit of paper with the party’s address on it from the trash, to bemused looks from my colleagues. I placed it safely in my purse after texting the details to Lana as she had requested.

“Are you ready for this?” Lana asked.

“Sure.” I settled down on a stool at what our landlord laughingly called the kitchen bench.

“Okay. Here’s the plan.” With a theatrical flourish she pulled a tea towel away, revealing a whiteboard covered in writing.

“Where did you get that?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Work.”

I eyed what looked like an elaborate plan on the board. “Is this all really necessary?”

“Yes it is!” She looked offended. “Look, Tilly, you need to forget this tragic teenage girl crush on this guy. People in the revenge business need to be focussed on one thing and one thing only: revenge.”

I opened my mouth to protest. She was right. It was a tragic teenage girl crush. I needed to forget about it. In the revenge business I was. “Okay,” I replied weakly.

She brandished a wooden spoon at the board. “So, as you can see here, we have a Three Point Revenge Plan.”

I looked at the board. It was covered in writing and she’d even added a trademark logo next to the title. She’d put a serious amount of thought into this.

“First off,” she began, whacking the spoon loudly against the board, “and most crucially I might add, Point One: Look Devastatingly Hot. You have to turn up to this party looking so hot he gets a chubby from you simply saying hello.”

I guffawed. “Sure, no problem. I’ll just jump in my Make Me Into A Sexy Super Model machine over here.”

“Ha! You’re gorgeous, and you know it. And with my expert guidance you will be amazeballs hot.”

I shrugged, unconvinced. “You can try. I don’t know if I have a party dress, though.”

She waved the spoon in the air. “It’s all in hand. I have a gazillion dresses you can borrow. You’ll look good enough to eat and you can reel Brady right on in.”

“Reel him in?” Brady’s face atop a fish body at the end of my fishing line sprung to mind.

“Yeah. Give him a taste of his own medicine.”

I tried to swallow the rising lump in my throat. “I’m not sure I can do that.”

“Yeah you can. Just look hot, lead him on, and then dump his sorry ass.”

I shook my head, biting my lip. Lead him on then dump him? Those pesky hamsters from earlier today started a boisterous dance party in my belly.

“Now, moving on.” Lana whacked the board with the spoon again. “Point Two: Dog Turd Gift.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “Why?”

“Because inside a beautiful, fragrantly scented gift will be a large, stinking dog turd.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Ah, one question,” I interjected, raising my hand like I was back in the classroom.

“Tilly,” Lana replied, as though she had an audience of many to choose from.

“Where, exactly, will I get a dog turd?”

“Out on the street, of course.” Her tone implied I’d asked the dumbest question known to humanity. “There are oodles of dogs in New York City. All you have to do is scoop up some of their poop, and hey presto, Brady gift time.”

I curled my toes at the thought. “So I’m just going to rock on up to this party, looking amazing, and hand Brady a dog turd present?”

“No.” A wicked smile spread across her face. “You’re going to set it alight.”

I stared at her, my eyes huge. “I am?”

“Tilly! Haven’t you seen Orange is the New Black?”

“That prison show?”

She nodded.

“No. Why?”

“Okay, let me explain what they did. This character wanted revenge on her ex so she got a pile of dog turd, wrapped it up, doused it in gasoline, put it on the ground, then set it alight. When the guy saw the fire he stomped on it to put it out, only to get dog poop all over himself! It was classic. That’s what I want you to do.” She leaned back against the bench, satisfied with Point Two in her Three Point Revenge Plan.

I, on the other hand, gaped at her. “You want me to do what? That would be crazy, not to mention completely unsafe. And disgusting.”

She shook her head at me. “It’s a roof garden party, stupid. You’ll be outside. It’s perfect!”

I bristled at being called ‘stupid’. “I’m not sure it’ll work.”

“I’ve used this one and it works great, trust me.” She had a satisfied look on her face.

“What’s the final point?”

“Point Three is Attack of the Digestive System, for what I hope is obvious reasons.”

I arched my eyebrows. “You want me to attack his digestive system? How?”

She reached around the back of the whiteboard and pulled out a bottle. “Exhibit A.”

I read the label. “Liquid laxative. Oh, I get it. You want me to give him the runs.”

“Yes! Wouldn’t that be hilarious? He won’t know what hit him and he’ll have to leave the party. With any luck he’ll poop in his pants on the way home.”

I let a giggle escape. “That would be kind of funny.”

“I know, right? Let me see. The recommended does for constipation is,” she searched the back of the bottle, “one teaspoon. I say we go for ten as a starting point.”

I chortled. “Ten?”

“We want to make sure it works.”

“Fair point. What are those?” I pointed to the edge of a box poking out from behind the whiteboard. I was getting into this whole revenge idea now.

Lana picked the box up. “Aha! Exhibit B.”

I peered at the label. “Santa moulds.”

“Yeah, baby. We’re going to make laxative-laced chocolate Santas.”

“I should have known.” I shook my head. “Logistical question: how do I make sure only Brady eats them?”

“Who is going to be there? Anyone else who was crappy to you in high school?”

My eyes narrowed as a shadow passed over me. “Tobey Thomas. He was the ring leader.”

She waggled the Santa moulds at me. “Feel like exacting some revenge on him too?”

An image of Tobey Thomas clutching at his belly in pain as he sat on a toilet popped into my head. A smile teased the edges of my mouth. “Oh, yes.”

Lana nodded. “See? It’s a win-win.”

I looked over the battle gear. “Wow, this really is a poop-themed revenge plan.”

“Isn’t it great? And that’s all there is to it. It’s clean and simple. Well, clean for you anyway. I think Brady will find it all pretty messy.”

I scrunched my nose.

She brandished her wooden spoon once more, banging it against the whiteboard with a whack. “Okay. To recap: Point One is Look Devastatingly Hot so you can seduce him and dump him.”[_ Whack.] “Point Two is Dog Turd Gift.” _Whack. “Point Three is Attack of the Digestive System. Got it?”

I nodded. “Got it.”

“And remember, we’re going for utter and total humiliation here.”

“Utter and total humiliation,” I echoed. I pushed down a feeling I couldn’t quite identify. “You’ve got it.”

***

Why have I agreed to this?

I’d been following a middle-aged, balding man with a double chin and his pug dog as they went for an early evening stroll for three blocks and still the damned pooch hadn’t found it necessary to provide me with anything even vaguely resembling a poop.

Not for the first time this evening the dog owner turned around nervously to look at me. I’d had to use a variety of diversion tactics, such as pretending to find a tree suddenly very interesting, bending down to tie my shoelace, and once even ducking into an apartment building entrance. This time though there was no tree, my shoelaces were perfectly tied, and there wasn’t an apartment entrance within spitting distance.

He looked me up and down. “May I help you?” he asked, narrowing his small, pug dog eyes at me. If this guy was anything to go by, it was true what they say about people looking like their pets.

I put my hand on my chest, glancing about me. “Who, me?”

“Yes, you. You’ve been following me.” His chins wobbled to and fro.

I plastered on my best I’m-innocent-honestly-sir look. “No I haven’t.”

“You have,” Two Chins insisted, taking a step towards me as he brandished his finger. “I saw you about two blocks back. You haven’t overtaken me, no matter how often I stop for Chester to sniff.”

I glanced down at Chester, my eyes pleading with him to make a lovely, steamy turd so I can get this over with and get out of here.

“I… umm…” I tried desperately to think of a plausible excuse but came up with nothing. “You have a cute dog.” I watched with mild disgust as Chester’s drool dribbled down onto the sidewalk in a stringy line. Against my better judgment I inched closer towards them.

Two Chins pulled Chester’s lead closer in to his body. The poor dog was wrenched backwards, his eyes bulging out in surprise. “Stay where you are,” he warned loudly.

I smiled at him. “I’m nothing to worry about, honestly. I just like your… your cute doggie.” My attention was diverted as I noticed Chester turning round and round in a circle before squatting down and beginning to poop. I watched, marvelling at the size of the thing. Good job, Chester!

“Err, thank you,” Two Chins replied as he gripped onto Chester’s lead.

The dog’s business completed, Two Chins pulled a bag out of his pocket to begin the clean up.

“Oh, my gosh! What’s that over there?” I asked, pointing down the street.

“What?” Two Chins turned and looked.

Faster than The Flash himself I pulled my own bag out of my pocket. Taking a large gulp of fresh air I bent down, placed the bag over my hand, and picked up the hot, steaming poop. Without a backwards glance I tied the bag up, turned, and dashed down the street, leaving a perplexed and confused Two Chins gaping after me in disbelief.

***

That evening I stood next to Lana outside Tobey Thomas’s parents’ apartment block as nervous as a cat at the dog pound. I was holding Chester’s offering in the form of the puppy poop present, wrapped in layer upon layer of scented paper and drenched with almost a full bottle of cheap perfume. Despite the extreme chemical cocktail I could still catch a whiff of eau de turd when the breeze blew in a certain direction. I hoped against all hope Brady wouldn’t notice it.

I also had the liquid laxative, lighter fluid, and matches in my purse ready to be used to deploy our Three Point Revenge Plan. Lana held the laxative-laced Santa chocolates, wrapped up in a cellophane bag, tied up with a red ribbon and a sprig of mistletoe. Coming from New Zealand where Christmas is in summer, I had never actually seen mistletoe in the flesh before and, I must admit, I was a little disappointed—it wasn’t going to win any beauty prizes any time soon.

“Are you ready?” Lana asked.

I glanced at her, biting my lower lip. “But, Lana, what if he’s changed? What if he’s really nice now? Isn’t this all a bit… mean?”

She arched her eyebrows. “Wasn’t it mean how he humiliated you in high school? You, the poor pudgy, spotty, nerdy girl with no friends?”

“Hey, I never said I didn’t have any friends. And I wasn’t that overweight. Puberty was rough on me, that’s all,” I interjected, pouting.

Lana waved my protestations away with a gloved hand. “He deserves this, Tilly. You know it. I know it. He probably knows it. His mother probably even knows it. His—”

“I get the picture,” I interrupted, my hand in the ‘stop’ sign. I took a deep, steadying breath, getting a lung-full of perfume-laced poop in the process. It was beyond disgusting. I coughed, my eyes watering. I wiped them dry, holding the present as far away from me as possible. I could do with some Inspector Gadget arms about now. “Let’s get this over with before I lose my nerve.”

Lana nodded at me as she took my free hand in hers. “Prepare for battle. This is going to be epic.”

We walked through the doors into the lobby, where a doorman directed us to the roof garden. Lana and I exchanged glances. This place was fancy with a capital ‘F’. The Tobester’s parents must have some serious wedge—another reason to despise him. An elevator ride and a flight of stairs later, we walked out onto the most beautiful roof terrace I’d ever seen. Fairy lights adorned the shrubs and bushes dotted around the terrace edges—with fake snow, because it still hadn’t snowed, but don’t start me on that again—sprinkled all around. There was even a strip of lawn at the far end of the terrace. Who knew how that worked up here on the twenty-third floor?

Cheesy Christmas music blasted out of speakers. The terrace was full of people, wrapped up in their winter warmers against the chill night air, most with reindeer antlers and Santa hats adorning their heads. They were laughing and talking, looking happy and festive.

I let out a sigh. It was a simply enchanting Christmas scene.

I turned to see Brady approaching us. As part of Point One (Look Devastatingly Hot) with a sigh of regret, I shrugged my warm winter coat off, shivered, and tried to look Super Model bored—as though the scene before me wasn’t my idea of Christmas perfection.

I flicked my hair the way Lana suggested, trying to look confident and sexy. Thanks to almost the entire contents of a bottle of hairspray, it barely budged.

Brady had a big grin on his impossibly handsome face and he was dressed in a pair of jeans and a bomber jacket, bundled up against the cold.

“Hi, Tilly! I’m so glad you could make it.”

“Hi, Brady. Nice…” my eyes drifted down to his flashing bowtie. “… tie.”

He fingered it self-consciously. “Got to get into the swing of things, right?” His eyes swept over me. “You look… wow.”

I glanced down at my short, red sequined dress with the plunging neckline. It showcased my usually meagre cleavage, which was hoisted up so high by Lana’s industrial strength padded bra that my chin could almost rest on it. I adjusted my Santa hat atop my lacquered hair.

There was an outside chance I may have been a little over dressed right now.

Brady reached across and, to my utter surprise, pulled me in for a hug. “Thanks so much for coming. Have you done something different tonight?”

I battered my false eyelashes at him, the way Lana taught me. No matter how good she said they made me look it felt like I had a couple of dead, fat caterpillars stuck to my upper eyelids. I don’t know how those Kardashians did it: it was not a good feeling.

“Why, thank you for noticing, Brady,” I responded, my voice low and husky as I channelled my inner sex goddess—who, incidentally, I’d never met before.

He gave me a sideways look. “Are you coming down with something? Maybe you should put your coat on. It’s cold out tonight.”

I cleared my throat, did my best to suppress a fresh shiver. “No, I’m just… no. Thanks.” I shot him an ‘I’m-so-sexy-I-can-barely-function’ look, tossing my immobile big hair once more. Losing my balance I teetered on my heels, forced to steady myself with aeroplane arms.

Not quite the look I was going for.

Brady watched all this with a hesitant look on his face. “That’s… that’s just great.” He smiled at Lana beside me, who had been observing our exchange closely.

“Hi. I’m Brady.” He extended his hand.

She took it, shaking it with vigour. “Lana Schwartz. Nice place you’ve got here.”

“Oh, it’s not mine. It belongs to Tobey Thomas’s parents.” He turned to me, releasing Lana’s hand. “You remember Tobes, don’t you, Tilly?”

“Sure do!” I smiled as I imagined seeing Tobey Thomas thrown from the roof terrace to his certain death below. “It’ll be so great to see him again,” I lied through a fake smile. I was perkier than Polly Pert at a pep rally.

Brady sniffed the air, his nose wrinkling. “Do you smell that?”

I moved Chester’s output behind my back, hoping my body would somehow muffle the stench. “No. Nothing. What?”

“It smells a bit like… something died.”

“Really? Something died, you say?” I squeaked like a mouse. “Do you smell anything, Lana?”

“Just the scent of Christmas,” she responded smoothly.

“Okay.” Brady looked uncertain. “Why don’t you both come with me? I’ll get you a drink.”

“Here’s a present.” Lana thrust the bag of chocolate Santas at Brady.

He took the packet in his hands. “Thank you.”

Lana’s eyes were trained on him. “It’s chocolate. Homemade. Have one now.”

He let out a laugh. “I’m not sure chocolate will mix with beer, but I’ll keep them for later. Thanks.”

Lana nudged me. “Tell him why he has to eat one now, Tilly.”

I took the cue, searching my brain for a plausible reason. “Well, Brady… in New Zealand… we eat chocolate with our beer all the time.”

Yes. That’s good. Plausible. Reasonable. A total lie, of course.

He shot me a dubious look. “You do? Doesn’t that make the beer taste bad?”

“Not at all. In fact, we believe the sweetness of the chocolate enhances the hops in the beer.”

Where did that come from?

A smile spread across his face. “Is that so?”

“Yes, yes it is, Brady. And not only that, we New Zealanders take it as a personal affront if you don’t eat our chocolate at Christmas time.”

Wow, I was on a roll!

“Huh. I didn’t know that. I’ve never been to New—”

Brady stopped speaking abruptly as Lana snatched the bag of chocolates from his hand and unwrapped them with haste, dropping the mistletoe and ribbon carelessly to the floor. “Here.” She thrust the open packet at him. “Eat one, or you’ll offend Tilly.” She leant in closer to him. “And I know you don’t want to do that.”

He glanced at me. I smiled feebly back. Lana sure was a woman on a mission tonight.

“Sure.”

Lana and I watched intently as he reached into the bag and pulled a chocolate Santa out. Without putting it in his mouth, he said, “Now, let’s get that drink.”

“But…” Lana began.

I elbowed her in the ribs. “Leave it,” I muttered through teeth clasped into a smile. “We don’t want to be too obvious.”

We followed Brady through the throngs of people to the drinks table. As I walked, I noticed there was a range of people at the party, from teenagers through much older people. It was an interesting mix, not the rowdy high school reunion party I had expected.

Once Brady was out of earshot, Lana grabbed my frozen cold arm. Seriously, I was almost blue.

“We almost had him there, Tilly. We can keep working on him but now you need to find a place to put the present so you can be ready to light it when he’s standing near it. That way you can make sure no one else tries to stomp the fire out. Plus it’s really beginning to stink.”

I glanced around the roof terrace. The place was fairly full. Setting a pile of poop masquerading as a present alight would be no easy feat. “Where am I going to put it?”

“You’re resourceful, you’ll work it out. Now, give me the laxative. I’ll slip some into his drink.”

Surreptitiously I pulled the bottle out of my purse and handed it to her. I spied a Christmas tree that had been obscured by a group of people on our arrival. I did my best silent ops signalling to Lana, waving my hands around, pointing from the present to the tree.

She nodded at me and I slipped through the crowd and placed the present next to the tree, relieved I no longer had to carry a stinky pile of dog poop around with me.

A moment later I reached the drinks table.

Brady smiled at me. “Oh, there you are, Tilly. What would you like to drink, ladies? We’ve got beer, red wine, white wine, soda, and orange juice.”

“Juice for me,” I responded immediately. I needed to keep a clear head tonight.

“I’ll have a glass of white wine, please,” Lana replied.

I shot her a look.

“What? It’s free. Us elves don’t earn much, you know,” she protested under her breath.

Brady handed us our drinks and we both thanked him. He picked up his beer and we all clinked glasses.

“Merry Christmas.” He smiled at me, looking into my eyes.

For a moment, I forgot my revenge mission and smiled back, genuinely happy to be here at the perfect Christmas party with the one and only Brady McKinnon, the very centre of my teenage fantasies. My tummy did a flip-flop. I would have done anything to have had this in high school.

“It’s so great to see you again, Tilly,” he said, not taking his eyes from mine.

“Hey, Brady. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your very attractive friends here?”

I dragged my eyes away from Brady to look at the intruder. It was Tobey Thomas: football captain, ringleader, and all-round piece of work. Despite the fact he’d packed on the beef and started to thin on top, I’d recognise that smarmy, arrogant face anywhere.

“Sure. This is Lana, and you remember Tilly Grayson from high school?”

The Tobester turned to me, looking me up and down. It made me want to shrink inside my dress. Subtlety thy name is not Tobey Thomas.

You’re Tilly Grayson?” His eyes almost popped out of his head. “But you’re hot!”

“Err, thanks. I think.” He’d managed to insult my teenage self and made me feel totally ick-ed out all with one breath. It must be a rare gift.

“Have you had a few too many of these, cousin?” Brady asked, brandishing his beer bottle in one hand and slapping Tobey on the back with the other.

Tobey and Brady were related? How did I never know this?

“Hey, it’s Christmas!” Tobey protested. “And we’re here with our families.” He rolled his eyes.

Brady had invited me to his family’s Christmas party?

He rolled his eyes at Tobey in good humour. “Sure. Any excuse, huh, Tobes?”

“Anyway, it’s great to see you all grown up and all, Tilly Greyhound.” Tobey leered at me, talking directly to my pushed up breasts. Classy guy.

“It’s Tilly Grayson,” I corrected him, more than a little creep-ed out. “Greyhound is a bus.”

Tobey Thomas wouldn’t even look at me in high school. Now, he was hitting on me?

“Tobey, why don’t you have one of these chocolate Santas?” Lana asked sweetly, waving the packet of laxative-laced treats in front of his face. “Tilly made them and I know she’d love it if you had one.”

“Sure!” Tobey took one and immediately stuffed it into his mouth.

I suppressed a smile.

“They’re good, huh? Here, have another.” Lana winked at me, smiling at Tobey as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth on a hot summer’s day.

“Yeah! Hey, you’re hot too. What’s your name again?”

“It’s Lana. I’m Tilly’s friend.” She smiled seductively, sidling up next to him—although how she could do so without vomiting is beyond me.

I watched open-mouthed as Tobey took another Santa and then another, his lips covered in chocolate as he stuffed them in his mouth. I shook my head. He was going to pay for this in a big, big way.

“Atta boy. Chocolate’s good for you. Who knows, it might put hair on your…” Lana glanced at his head, “… chest.”

I did my best to stifle a laugh. I noticed Brady watching me with a quizzical expression on his face. A pang of guilt hit me firmly in the chest.

“So, Tilly…” Tobey leered at my cleavage again.

I took a quick step backwards. “Ah, can I please use the little girls’ room?” I asked Brady.

Brady shot me a sympathetic look. “Sure. I’ll take you.” He looked at Tobey. “You, stay here. Drink some water or something.”

I grabbed Lana’s hand. “She needs to come too.”

“I do? I mean, yes, I do.” She handed the rest of the chocolates to Tobey who took another one and stuffed it in his mouth. At this rate the guy would have exploded by the time we get back.

We followed Brady inside and he directed us down the hall to the bathroom. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the apartment. By New York standards it was huge. It was ornately decorated with chandeliers and elegant furniture, tasteful art adorning the walls. The place reeked of money and class—unlike Tobey Thomas.

“Second on the right,” Brady said, pointing down the hall.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“No problem. I can wait here for you, if you like?”

As I looked into his eyes my belly did another flip-flop. “I, err…”

Lana tugged on my hand. “Let’s go. See you back out at the party, Brady.”

We reached the bathroom and closed the door firmly behind us. Lana and I looked at one another for a moment before we both burst into laughter.

Lana high-fived me. “We’re doing this! That guy Tobey is going to feel so bad.”

“So bad.” I put my hand over my mouth, shaking my head. I almost felt sorry for Tobey. But not quite.

“Now we just need to work on the real target tonight, Brady,” Lana said, peering in the mirror.

There was that guilt again, creeping across my chest.

“Look, Lana. I was thinking. It’s ancient history. Brady seems nice now. Really nice. And this? It all feels a bit ‘high school’, you know? Let’s just forget the drink and lighting the poop present, okay? Have a nice time.”

Lana turned to face me and took me by the shoulders. Speaking in a slow, deliberate fashion she said, “You’re getting speed wobbles, Tilly. It’s only natural. I need you to close your eyes. Now focus in on how these guys made you feel back in high school. What they did to you, how humiliated you were.”

I did as she instructed. In an instant the gut-wrenching mortification washed over me like it was yesterday.

“Better?” Lana questioned when I opened my eyes.

“Let’s go light that sucker.”

Back outside, I scanned the terrace for Brady. I spotted him deep in conversation with a beautiful woman who looked like she could be on the cover of Vogue magazine. Typical: he always had a way with the females of our species.

It was now or never.

I wandered nonchalantly over to the Christmas tree as Lana circled behind Brady in a ‘party ops’ move we’d practiced at our apartment. I picked up the present and pulled the lighter fluid out of my purse, ready to give it a good dousing.

As I bent over, a clammy hand slid around my waist. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”

I straightened up to see an intoxicated Tobey Thomas next to me. “Hi,” I said with less enthusiasm than a kid at the dentist. I guessed the mega dose of laxative hadn’t kicked in just yet. More’s the pity.

His eyes slid over my body, settling once more on my chest. Well, I’d give him points for consistency, that’s for sure.

“I can’t believe you’re Tilly from high school. You’ve changed so much.”

“You too,” I replied. Back then Tobey was athletic, cute in an arrogant kind of way, and Mr Popularity. Today? Not so much.

“You think? Thanks. Hey, how about you and I get a little more… comfortable. We’ve got a lot to catch up on, don’t you think?”

The last thing I would ever want to do would be to get ‘comfortable’ with this man. Whatever that meant.

“Oh, I’m just… putting this present under the tree.” I brandished the wrapped poop at him.

Tobey eyed it. “Is that for Brady?”

“Yes. It’s… ah… cufflinks.” I glanced down at the gift. It was far too big to be cufflinks. “And chocolates. Cufflinks and chocolates. You know, that classic combination?”

Really?

“Nice. Can I have a look at it?” He reached up to take the gift from me.

I snatched it back. “No! It’s… delicate.”

He raised his eyebrows at me. “Delicate cufflinks?”

“Mmm-hmm.” I said a silent prayer he would let it go.

He glanced over my shoulder. At least he was no longer talking to my breasts. “Look, can I borrow that?”

Borrow it? Why?”

“I’ll be honest with you. My boss is here tonight and I totally forgot to get him a Christmas present. If you let me have this one, I’ll owe you. Big.” He raised his eyebrows suggestively. “If you know what I mean.”

A slow grin spread across my face. “Sure. Of course.”

“Atta girl.”

As I handed him the gift, I caught a fresh whiff of eau de turd. This couldn’t have worked out better if it’d been a part of the Three Point Revenge Plan.

“Awesome.” He pulled me into him. I could smell the beer on his breath. Intermingled with the stinky gift it was quite the aroma. I suppressed an urge to vomit.

“Don’t go anywhere. We’ve got some things to talk about,” he breathed on me. Not a moment too soon he released me and meandered off, presumably in search of his unsuspecting boss.

I took a deep breath as I watched him leave. His boss was going to get a rather sizeable surprise when he opened Tobey’s present. I guessed he would be one grumpy man. I grinned.

“What are you smiling about?” Brady asked, now Vogue model free.

“Nothing. Just having a nice time.” I shivered, tried to cover it up.

“Are you sure you don’t want to put your coat on? Seriously, Tills, you’re turning blue.”

He called me Tills? In a flash I was back in history class, buddied up with Brady on an American Revolution project. I was trying not to blush as we sat close together, discussing dates and events. ‘Tills’ became his name for me. We worked on that project together for a week. The best week of my entire school life.

Until he ruined it.

I swallowed. “I’m fine, really.”

“So how come you’re in New York? I thought you were only ever here for senior year.”

I shrugged. “I was. I came back a few weeks ago. It’s so cool to see all the amazing buildings, the shops, Central Park, the Rockefeller Center.”

“The Rockefeller Center is awesome this time of year, I’ll give you that.”

“I know,” I replied whimsically. “It’s…”

“Magical.” Brady finished my sentence for me.

I grinned at him, those hamsters cranking up their dance party in my tummy.

I cleared my throat. “I went to the Rockefeller Center with my friends the Christmas I lived here. I’ve never forgotten it.” I thought about how I felt when I first laid eyes on it: the giant tree, the gold statue, the ice skaters. It had felt like Christmas the way it ought to be. After a moment I shook my head, bringing myself back to the present. “Anyway, I loved it here in the city so much I wanted to come back.”

He seemed surprised, relieved even. “You did?” His face broke into a smile. “That’s good to hear.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Why do you say that?”

He shrugged, looked down at his feet. “I don’t know. I guess, back then…” He paused, looking back up at me. “Tilly, I owe you an apology.”

The atmosphere suddenly changed.

I swallowed. Hard. “You do?”

He nodded. “I do. That thing in high school? I’m not sure if you remember…”

“Oh, I remember.”

“I figured as much. Look.” He put his hand on my arm, sending shivers down my spine. “I know I shouldn’t have done it. All of us guys pulled a name out of a hat and had to ask that girl to the Winter Dance. When I pulled your name out, I felt horrible.”

I nodded at him, my lips pursed into a thin line as my old friend mortification knocked on the door. I knew I was supposed to be seducing and then dumping him to give him a dose of his own medicine, but in an instant our Three Point Revenge Plan felt irrelevant, childish.

I hung my head. “You didn’t have to do it, Brady.” My voice came out in almost a whisper.

“I know that now. It was really crappy of me. I’m sorry.”

I looked up into his eyes. We held one another’s gaze as my heart squeezed. I wanted to pinch myself, make sure this wasn’t another one of my fantasies. “That’s okay.” I could barely hear my voice over the thud of my heart.

We heard a ruckus over by the drinks table. “What the hell?” a man’s voice boomed.

“I wonder what’s going on?” Brady asked.

I spotted Tobey with another man over by the drinks table. Lana was standing a few feet away, phone in hand filming the unfolding events.

I shrugged, knowing exactly what was happening. “No idea, although I’m sure it’s none of our business.”

Brady shot me a puzzled look. “You may be right.”

I spied Lana approaching us. “Oh, look. There’s Lana. Doesn’t she suit that colour? I think so. It’s totally her. I wonder how she’s doing. Lana! How are you?” I babbled.

She glanced uncertainly from me to Brady and back to me again. “Hey guys. Look, Tilly, I think we need to get going. We’ve got that thing, remember?”

“That thing?”

She glared at me.

“Oh, yes, of course. That thing.”

“And we need to go. Now.”

The voices got louder on the other side of the terrace. I turned to Brady. “Thank you, Brady, for a lovely evening. It was—”

“Bye, Brady.” Lana dragged me towards the door before I had the chance to finish my sentence.

“Tilly!” Tobey yelled, stomping over towards us, his face like thunder.

“Yikes!” I tottered in my heels behind Lana who grabbed our coats as we headed for the door.

As we reached the threshold, I turned back to look at Brady. He stood watching me, open-mouthed, confusion written across his face. I stopped still and savoured the moment—not because I knew Tobey had got his comeuppance for being the ring leader in my humiliation after all this time, but because in a matter seconds, Brady would know what I’d done. And he would think less of me.

“Tilly, get back here!” Tobey shouted, closing the distance between us.

I mouthed “sorry” to Brady then tore my eyes away from him. Together Lana and I dashed through the door, down the stairs, and ran as fast as our heels would take us to the elevator.

“Come on! Come on!” Lana cried in frustration as she pushed the elevator button repeatedly. Like that was going to make it come faster.

As if by some miracle, the elevator arrived a couple of seconds later. We dived in and hit the ‘close’ button, willing it to weave its magic. As the doors slid together we heaved a collective sigh of relief, both leaning up against the elevator wall, hearts hammering with adrenaline.

“That was close,” Lana commented, shaking her head. “Too close.”

“It was. How did you know what had happened?”

“I saw it. That idiot Tobey stole our present from under the tree and gave it to his boss! Can you believe it?”

I let out a nervous, high-pitched laugh. “I know. Only he didn’t steal it. I gave it to him.”

She shook her head. “Genius, girl. Genius.”

“I know, right?” I took a couple of deep breaths, grinning from ear to ear. My triumph was short lived. In an instant, my mind turned to Brady. What must he think of me?

Lana was oblivious to my inner turmoil. “I don’t know about you, but I think we rocked that party.”

“Yeah. Totally.”

The elevator reached the lobby and pinged as the doors slid open. If this were an action movie, Tobey would be standing there, waiting for us, an axe in his hand and a crazed look on his face.

Lucky for us it was not and the coast was clear.

We slipped our coats on and walked out onto the street. “Where do you want to head?” Lana asked.

“I know this is probably really cheesy for you, but is it okay if we go to the Rockefeller Center? It’s been on my mind tonight.”

“Sure. It’s only a few blocks away.”

We arrived a short stroll later. I stopped and stared at the huge Christmas tree, mesmerized by its twinkling lights, the giant, bright star atop, the huge gold statue beneath. People were milling around, while others were ice-skating to Christmas music under the giant tree.

I let out a sigh.

“You really like this place, don’t you?” Lana asked, smiling, her eyes kind.

“I do. I came here to see the tree when I was a teenager. I fell down ice-skating there.” I pointed to a spot on the rink below. “And there.” I pointed to another spot. “And there.”

“Sounds painful to me.”

I shrugged. “It was… magical.”

She shook her head. “Tourists.”

We stood in companionable silence as I got swept away by the scene before me.

This. This is why I’m in New York at Christmastime. With all the people, the endless traffic, the twenty-four hours a day noise, the pollution, being where I am right now makes it all worthwhile.

Lana nudged me in the ribs, pulling me back to earth.

“Ouch! Why’d you do that?” I protested.

In response, she nudged me again, cocking her head to the side like a confused spaniel.

I turned to see what she was looking it.

Brady.

My heart leapt into my mouth. “What…? What are you doing here, Brady?”

“You left so fast.” He puffed as he spoke. “So I ran. I guessed you’d be here.”

I glanced down at his hand. “You ran here with your beer?”

He lifted the beer up and looked at it as though he hadn’t seen it before. “Ha. I didn’t realise I did that.”

We stood for a moment together until Lana said, “I’m going to head over and look at the thing over there.”

Before I had the chance to ask, she was gone.

I turned to Brady. “Why’d you follow me?”

“We… I didn’t think we’d finished talking.”

A fresh wave of guilt slammed into me. “Brady, I… I need to tell you something.”

“That you tried to prank me with a pile of turd wrapped up in a present?”

I shifted my weight. “Ah, yeah. I’m really sorry. It was dumb of me.”

He shrugged. “No harm no foul. Well, for me, anyway. Tobey’s not in the best space right now.”

I bit my lip. “I bet.”

“And to top it off he thinks he’s come down with a tummy bug. He looked pretty green when I left.”

“Oh. That’s no good.” An urgent change of subject was required. Stat! Something had been nagging at me since we’d last met. “Did you really not remember who I was when you came into the store?”

He scrunched up his face. “Yeah, about that. I might not have been totally honest with you. I put two and two together: the nametag, your accent. You may look different from high school days, Tills, but I could still tell it was you.”

I regarded him with surprise. “You didn’t seem to.”

He kicked the floor. “I was embarrassed. Back in high school, I was a bit of a—”

“Complete asshole?” I offered.

Brady chuckled. “I was going to say jerk, but asshole is probably more accurate. I’m glad I have the opportunity to make up for it now.”

I grinned at him, suddenly shy. He smiled back as he absentmindedly raised his beer to his lips.

Oh, god. The laxative! And, knowing Lana and her excessive approach to revenge, enough of it to fell a fully-grown elephant.

Action was required: and fast!

In an instant I reached up and hit the bottle with my palm, sending it flying out of Brady’s hand and onto the ground. It smashed, the remains of the beer—and liquid laxative—frothing over the broken glass.

Brady gazed down at the smashed bottle and back up at me, his mouth agape.

Okay, how are you going to explain this one, Tilly?

“Is that another New Zealand tradition?” he asked, dumbfounded.

“Yes!” I replied, relieved he’d come up with an almost plausible explanation for me. “It’s… considered bad luck to… to drink from a beer that’s been held in the hand for more than ten minutes at Christmastime.”

What?

He grinned. “I’ll be sure to drink my beer faster in the future then.”

“Or put it down on the table in between sips. You could do that,” I offered reasonably.

He nodded. “I guess you can never be too careful with these things.”

He smiled at me and the hamsters banged against the walls in my belly.

He dropped his chin. “I thought you’d hate me after what happened.”

I shrugged. “I did.”

“Past tense?” The look on his face was… hopeful.

“We all do things we’re not proud of and would rather forget.” Such as Three Point Revenge Plans.

“I always kind of liked you.”

“You did?” I squeaked.

“Yeah. I’ll admit, you’re much cuter these days, but you’ve always been really nice. I remember how fun it was doing that history project together. I liked you.”

My face glowed. “Thanks. I liked you too, despite the asshole behaviour.” I laughed. “And that’s saying a lot.”

His grin crinkled the edges of his eyes and lit up his face. “Does that mean I can do this?” He took my hand in his, looking into my eyes. “Wow, you’re cold.”

“I know.” My mouth went dry.

He pulled something out of his pocket. It was the mistletoe that had slipped off the chocolate Santas. Without another word, he held it above our heads, leaned in, and brushed his lips against mine. It was achingly good. He pulled away for a moment before kissing me again, wrapping his arms around me, pulling me into his wonderful, warm, firm body.

I’m kissing Brady McKinnon! I’m kissing Brady McKinnon!

I know it’s a total cliché but my knees actually did go weak.

Eventually—but far too soon for my liking—he pulled away from me again. “Tilly? How about we come to a deal. If I forgive you for this evening, would you forgive me for what I did to you in high school?”

A smile spread across my face. Without a moment’s hesitation, I offered him my hand. “Deal.”

We shook and he grinned back at me. “What are you doing for New Year’s? Would you like to go out with me? As long as you leave any poop presents you may still have lingering around at home, of course.”

I looked at him agog. Not only did Brady McKinnon just kiss me—and oh, mercy, what a kiss!—now he was asking me on a date?

I slipped my hand up my coat sleeve and gave myself a sharp, firm pinch. I sucked in air at the pain. Yep, I wasn’t dreaming: this was really happening.

I looked into his gorgeous brown eyes. “Brady, I would love to.”

His face broke into a grin, his eyes sparkling. He leant down and kissed me again, sending tingles down my spine. It was so incredible I swear I nearly fainted.

“You have to promise me one last thing, though, Tills.”

From my state of utter bliss I responded, “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“We never, under any circumstances, spend Christmas in New Zealand.”

I noticed small snowflakes landing on his head and looked up to the dark sky above filled with delicate snow gently floating down around us. It was a picture-perfect Christmas wonderland with my picture-perfect high school crush.

I grinned at him, warmth spreading through my belly. “I promise.”

***

THE END

About the Author

I write funny, sexy, feel-good romantic comedies. I’ve loved rom coms, romance, and chick lit since I first encountered Bridget Jones as a young, impressionable writer. It really was a match made in chick lit heaven.

I’ve been a teacher and a sales executive, but am now content as a mother and writer, madly scribbling all the ideas I’ve accumulated during my time on this planet we call home.

I live and love in beautiful New Zealand—where my novels are set—with my wonderful family and my two very scruffy, naughty dogs. 

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Also by Kate O’Keeffe

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[_One Last First Date _]– coming soon!

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Laurie Baxter

1

Home For the Holidays

The theater looked exactly the same. The worn[* *]velvet seats. The tiny white lights strung in dotted lines along the aisle. The rich red drapes, which actually opened and closed, hung across the screen. It even smelled the same—a reassuring mix of must and popcorn. Sure, there were real theaters in L.A., too, but none of them were The Wayfarer. None of them were home.

And it was empty, just as she had been hoping. Not that it was that surprising. Sure, December 25th was one of the biggest box office days of the year. But that was for the big chain theaters, the ones showing the latest multi-million-dollar disaster of a disaster film. Not a tiny little gem like this one.

Ming padded down the carpeted aisle and slid into the fourth row. Optimal viewing, she knew from years of experience. She sank into seat three with a contented sigh. This was what she had needed.

It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy being back. In her seventh year of higher education, she still hadn’t quite adjusted to the idea that she was actually a grown-up, that her parents’ house wasn’t her house anymore. It was wonderful to see them, to come home to the old hand-crocheted throws in the living room, the old cat on the hand-crocheted throws. And of course now there was the smell of both latkes and egg rolls cooking in the kitchen, seasonal classics in the Leibowitz household. That, comfortable and familiar as it was, was in fact the problem.

She couldn’t complain. Her parents had done everything they could to give her a rich, cultural heritage, raising her in their own Jewish traditions, passed down through both their families for generations, as well as carefully including as much Chinese food, music, literature, and more as they could. They had been determined she would not lose her native heritage, even as they welcomed her into her adopted one. But… But. Growing up in America—in white-church-dotted New England, no less—Christmas was everywhere, from the day after Halloween (at the latest!) to after the new year. And Ming couldn’t help herself. She loved it. She loved the satin-ribboned wreaths on the doors, the ridiculous oversized ornaments at the mall, the twinkle lights lining the downtown shop windows. The sweeping, swelling, spiritual carols, the boppy, catchy tunes from the ’50s and ’60s, the velvet crooning of old classics. Nat King Cole. Bing Crosby. Mel Tormé. Peppermint and cinnamon and a million kinds of cookies. The thinly veiled themed art projects when she was a kid in school, separation of church and state be damned. Rudolph and the Heat Miser and the Island of Misfit Toys. All of it. Every last stockings-hung-with-glee bit of it. Not exactly what a nice Chinese-Jewish girl is supposed to be thinking about this time of year.

She couldn’t bear to hurt her sweet parents’ feelings, though, so she did her best not to make a big deal of it at home. They knew, though. Sort of. And they tried—like this year, when she’d arrived home to find the living room mantle decorated with something they’d found online called “Menornaments.” They were hilarious—one, for example, was called the “Chai Five”—shaped like a chai and covered in, you guessed it, 5s. Perfect for her Jewish-with-a-sense-of-humor parents, but not really her. Not really Christmas.

That was why she had come out on her own tonight. Ming needed some Christmas to herself.

She’d known The Wayfarer would be showing a holiday movie, and frankly, she would’ve settled for Ernest Saves Christmas, but her favorite little cinema just happened to be showing her all-time favorite Christmas film. Black and white, 1940, James Stewart—bliss. Not the one everyone thinks of, though. Sure, [It’s a Wonderful Life _]was a wonderful film (that was ’46, anyway), but as far as Ming was concerned, it just couldn’t compete with _The Shop Around the Corner.

Hardly anyone she knew outside of film school had heard of it, though Nora Ephron had remade it as the modern You’ve Got Mail and scenes from the original film were included among the DVD extras. Which everyone promptly ignored. The Shop Around the Corner was a gem of a production, played to perfection by Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and a wonderful supporting cast, based on the play by Miklós László. She sort of loved that few people knew about it. It felt private and cozy. And she could watch it and revel in it and swoon as both a film historian and a fan, despite feeling slightly torn about the plot as a feminist.

Yes, yes, she knew, she [knew _]that in real life Mr. Kralik’s keeping what he knows to himself would be presumptuous, even creepy maybe (it was worse in the newer film, where it went on even longer). But dammit, they really knew how to sweep you up in the romance back then. And Jimmy Stewart didn’t count as real life, anyway. Or maybe she was just fooling herself and it was just good, old-fashioned male-POV-is-the-only-POV sexism. But then it really wasn’t fair that she liked it so much. At any rate, this whole dichotomy—Hollywood romance vs. modern real-world sensibilities—was actually what her thesis was on. So for now, she reasoned, it was important to just experience the film however she naturally did. It was _research. Heart-fluttery, toe-curling research. Screw it. She was just going to enjoy the movie and reread Bad Feminist on the flight back to California. Backward and dated or not, you can’t throw away the classics. You just can’t.

She swung her legs up over the empty seat in front of her and settled low in her chair, sweeping her smooth, black hair over the back, behind her. The movie would be starting any minute.

“Ming?”

Oh, God. Seriously?

She was really looking forward to watching alone. And now not only did she not have the theater to herself, apparently it was someone she—

“Ming, is that you?” came the deep, masculine voice again, one she couldn’t quite place but that sounded much happier to see her than she was to see anyone. She sighed and turned to see who it belonged to and—

Holy hell.

“Charlie.”

“In the flesh.” He grinned.

He strode toward her, lanky arms held wide. There seemed to be no way out of it, so she met him at the aisle, letting him envelop her in a near-stifling hug, though, to be fair, some of that had to do with his poufy, black, Michelin-tire-man-esque winter jacket.

“How the heck are ya, Ming?” he asked, ushering her back into the row. So apparently he was going to sit with her. Fantastic.

Ming and Charlie went way back. She could remember the very first moment she laid eyes on him. Of course, it was hard to forget when your Advanced Algebra teacher calls roll for the first time and there’s actually a kid named “Charlie Brown” in the class. Poor Charlie. His parents thought they were being funny and cute. Had they known what a dork their son would turn out to be, they might’ve thought twice about it.

Not that being a dork was a bad thing. Ming, herself, fell into the general category of brainy misfits. Though Charlie was maybe a little more on the “goober” side of things than was really desirable. He was always very serious. And sort of sweet in his own way. Or he had been up until, anyway.

She walked farther into the row and took[* *]seat six. Slightly less optimal, but she wanted to give him space. He plopped into seat five and proceeded to shuffle off his puffball of a parka. Could she hop over a seat without being rude?

“It’s great to see you. I didn’t know you’d be home,” he said, stuffing the enormous sleeves carefully on his side of the armrest to make space for her. So, no. She was sitting here it seemed.

“Yeah, you know, I’m visiting from… school,” she said lamely.

“Right. Right.” They fell into an awkward silence.

He was home from grad school, too, she knew. Home from Southern California, too, in fact. As of this year. While she had been in L.A. since she started her master’s, he had just begun working toward his doctorate in electrical engineering at Caltech. Or so she heard. You know, through the grapevine and maybe a little innocuous digging online. They had nineteen mutual friends on Facebook, after all. Or… something like that. It wasn’t like she was keeping track of the exact number or anything. Not on purpose, anyway.

She had made a point of avoiding Pasadena since September. Just in case.

Man this was uncomfortable. Had he run out of small talk? Oh. Maybe it was her turn to say something.

“How are your parents?”

“Good, good.” He smiled. Seemed relieved. She inadvertently noticed his brown curls had grown out into a not-unrakish mop. “Yours?”

“They’re fine.”

“Your dad got the light-up menorah on the lawn this year?”

“Indeed, he does.”

They both laughed, but it was one of those awful, fake laughs you have to laugh when you’ve run into someone[* *]you’re not supposed to hate but do.

In fairness, she didn’t know if he hated her. She did know he took great pleasure in turning down her—platonic—invitation to their senior prom six years ago. Even though neither of them had dates. Even though right up until that very moment, while she knew they were competitors academically, she also thought they were friends. Or friendly. Or something like that. But no. And then the sick prick had the audacity to act like nothing happened. He did it for the last month of class she’d had to sit through with him—had actually seemed to be avoiding her a little, as if [she’d _]done something to _him. He did it at graduation and all summer whenever he’d run into her at the diner or mini-golf or any of the other very limited teen hangouts in their small town. He had even sent her a couple of postcards freshman year, telling her casually about his organic chem class and the roommate who played the trombone and other random minutia she really wasn’t interested in from a guy who couldn’t be bothered to go to a stupid dance with her as a friend.

She knew for a fact that he had gone with his dweeb friends Brian and Marcel. Karen in her French class had told her the next Monday, describing how they had hung out by the punch bowl and sweated through their suit jackets, making all the girls uncomfortable while never—mercifully—asking a single one to dance. This was supposed to make Ming feel better for having missed it. It might have, too, had it not revealed just how much Charlie didn’t want to spend an evening with her—if that joyride of a night was preferable.

She couldn’t help but wonder how he could stand to sit with her now, if that was the case. Maybe because there was no one around to see them together (there was just Marcy, the owner, working the theater that night, and she would be up in the projection booth by now, getting ready to start the show). Or maybe Charlie had entered some sort of twelve-step program and this was part of his treatment. Make amends with those you have humiliated during the most vulnerable part of their existence or something like that.

“No coat?” he asked, finally. Because someone had to say something.

“Just gets in the way. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to not needing one,” she said absently, forgetting for a moment that her current sunny and warm hometown was the last topic she wanted coming up. She hoped he wouldn’t ask what she had meant.

Just then, the lights dimmed and the curtains parted. Thank God.

On-screen, the music played, the MGM lion roared, and the opening credits began, the sounds of the orchestra sweeping through her as they always did, pulling her in. The grandeur of it all. She felt her shoulders relax into the seat, the familiar uncontrollable grin spread across her face. The dust glittering in the projector’s beam, the air charged with anticipation. God, she loved the movies.

But before she let herself be carried fully away, she stole a glance back at Charlie. To her surprise, he looked just as caught up as she was. He must have sensed her watching him because he turned. He almost looked like he might be blushing—hard to tell in the dark theater. Then he leaned close and whispered, “You know, I love this movie, but every time I watch it, I think ‘Just tell her the truth, man!’ Somehow I want it to live up to a feminist ideal even modern films don’t meet. And anyway, if you took out the lie, you’d take out half the plot.” He sighed, shook his head. “It’s an objectively fantastic film—the dialogue, the costumes, the actors. I’m going to enjoy it. And then I’m going home and making a big donation to EMILY’s List.”

He turned back to the movie and was almost instantly absorbed. Oh, yes, she had forgotten that about him. How he actually thought about things, too. And how often they agreed. Damn him.

She stared at him in the dark, the light from the screen softly highlighting his features, and tried not to notice how decidedly more square and masculine the line of his jaw had become since the last time she saw him. When she found herself wondering how rough his stubble might feel to the touch, she realized she was failing. She forced her attention back in the general direction of Jimmy Stewart, who was insisting all he’d done was make an innocent request for a bicarbonate of soda. Beside her, Charlie laughed. Great. Just what she needed. A Charlie Brown Christmas.

***

The movie ended and the lights came up. She’d enjoyed it, but not quite as much as usual. Hard to get fully immersed when you’re sitting next to the[* ]embodied flashback of your high school trauma.[ *]She’d been swept up in the final scene, of course. Klara revealing her old crush on Kralik. Kralik toying with her, telling her he’d met her secret boyfriend and he was a fat, unemployed, older man named Popkin (when in fact it was Kralik himself, of course). But then, out of the corner of her eye, she’d noticed Charlie staring at her instead of Margaret Sullavan. And when she’d turned to shoot him the evil eye, he hadn’t even looked away. Just locked eyes with her for what felt like hours, though judging by the action on-screen, it was probably fifteen seconds. She felt exposed or cold or… something… and had the sudden urge to wrap her coat around her before she remembered she hadn’t bothered to wear one. Finally, Kralik was begging Klara to kiss him on-screen and Ming tore her focus away to watch, but the uneasy feeling never quite left her. She was more than ready to leave when the final credits faded out.

“‘What does it matter so long as our minds meet?’” said Charlie, wrapping a ridiculously long scarf around his neck as they passed through the now-darkened lobby. “Such a great line. Sets the whole thing up perfectly.”

Ming was trying to calculate their good-byes. Should she say it had been nice seeing him? Probably. Common courtesy, at least, was called for. What if he tried to do that kissing on the cheek thing that guys do? What if she got flustered and turned, brushed her lips against his? What if—and then, entirely against her will, her mind filled with images of them kissing up against the brick building, her back to the wall, arms wrapped around Charlie’s neck, Charlie and his ridiculous scarf and his ridiculous jacket wrapped around her, keeping her warm even without a coat, right there between the spot-lit posters for The Shop Around the Corner _]and [_Some Like It Hot.

“You have a good night, now,” Marcy said as she held the door for them, snapping Ming back to reality.

Ming smiled and said a shaky “Merry Christmas” as she followed Charlie through the exit into the night.

And then she stopped.

“Wow,” he breathed next to her.

Endless enormous snowflakes floated down, a good three inches already piled up on the ground, even though it had been bare when she’d gone into the theater. It was dark, quiet, the lot almost empty at this hour on the holiday. Everyone else was home or watching Aftershock 5: Megatsunami or whatever the hell was playing over at the multiplex. There was a click behind them. Marcy walked around to her car, parked beside the building. She climbed in and pulled slowly away, wipers swishing. A breeze swirled, spinning the flakes through the air around them.

“I do miss this,” she said, stepping out from under the overhang in front of the theater and turning her face to the sky.

“Me, too. I haven’t seen it snow like this in years.”

Oh, crap. Why had she said anything? She was practically asking him to bring it up.

“I’m in California now,” he added.

And there it was.

“Yeah. I’m, uh…” In California, too, and actively avoiding you.

“Yeah, it’s okay. Congrats on the getting into the doctoral program, by the way.”

She gave him a quizzical look.

He looked down, shuffled some snow with his foot. “I might have cyber-stalked you a little. I mean, I don’t think it really counts as stalking. I found your Twitter profile. And sometimes I see you comment on Facebook. We have like eighteen mutual friends.”

Nineteen, actually. Not, again, that she was keeping track on purpose. Just. You know, you notice these things.

“Anyway,” he said, looking up, “Good for you. USC’s a great school.”

“Yeah, well so is—” Crap she wasn’t supposed to know he was at Caltech.

He gave her a lopsided grin. “You knew.”

Dammit.

“I’ve been busy.”

“It’s okay, Ming. I didn’t really expect…”

“You could’ve looked me up.”

“Would you have wanted that?”

She said nothing. She wrapped her arms around herself. Suddenly, she was cold.

“Where’d you park? I’ll walk you to your car.”

Was he kidding?

“I can walk myself to my car, Charlie. I’m a grown woman.” In the interest of being able to say she’d at least been polite, she thrust out her hand. “It was nice seeing you.”

He shook it. She gave him a curt nod, then turned and walked toward the lot on the other side of the building. Unfortunately, Charlie Brown followed. Good grief.

“I told you,” she said, looking back at him, “I’m fine.”

He nodded behind her. There was one other car in the lot. His mom’s old Corolla, parked at the opposite end.

“Oh.”

“So I guess… I guess good-bye, then,” he said, almost sadly. Which was rich, coming from the guy who had rejected her. No, Charlie, we’re not going to be pals back in SoCal. So sorry. Seriously, she wanted to ask him what his deal was. But not as much as she wanted to get into her car and turn the heat on. She hadn’t dressed for lingering out in the cold.

The imagined scene between the movie posters came back unbidden.

“Yeah, bye,” she snapped, squelching it.

She stalked to her dad’s Accord, which she had borrowed for the occasion, pulling her sweater sleeves down over her hands for warmth.

She never could figure out what had possessed Charlie to handle the whole prom thing the way he had. If anything, she had been extra nice to him in school. She had, for instance, never once mentioned the time freshman year when he had asked her to a dance only because his parents made him ask someone. They were concerned he wasn’t being “social” enough. So he’d gone and asked the biggest nerd he could find with an XX genotype. And she’d never even brought it up. Fortunately, she had turned him down with some excuse about visiting cousins that weekend (really, what did he expect, coming up to a girl he’d never spoken to outside of class and asking her on a date?), but she’d felt bad when she learned his folks put him up to it (Brian tipped her off). And, actually, in a weird way, it was what made her notice him. What made him stand out from the rest of their dorky peers as someone bordering on relatable.

After that, she sat with him at lunch sometimes, called him if she missed class to get the assignment, passed him the occasional caricature she’d doodled of their teacher in Advanced Bio because she knew it’d make him laugh. It had been the start of what became a real friendship. What she had thought was a real friendship.

Her car was so covered, if there had been others there, she would have had trouble picking hers out. Fortunately, the snow was wet and lightly packed, so it only took a quick sweep of the brush to clear the windows. She willed herself not to look back at Charlie as she worked, though she heard his engine start up and saw the glow of his headlights lighting up in the corner of her eye.

She took a deep breath and let it out. She knew she was fooling herself if she thought it hadn’t affected her to run into him. But there would be lots of time to process her resurfacing adolescent angst and whatever else bobbed up with it. Right now, she just wanted to get the hell out of there.

She dropped into the seat, slipped the belt into the buckle, slid the key into the ignition, and turned it. All one smooth motion. Only one problem. The car didn’t start.

Okay. Okay, no need to panic. She turned the key again. Nothing. Maybe… maybe what? Maybe the cold? Yeah, that was right. She remembered now, the car had trouble in the cold. The starter sometimes took a few tries to catch. But usually it sputtered a little and this time it hadn’t… Okay, well, she would just try again.

Nothing.

Crap.

Okay. She could figure this out. Maybe a fuse? She needed some light in here—

Oh. Shit. Shit. The lights. She didn’t want to look but… Yup. The lights were on. Well, no, they weren’t on. But they were switched on. Because she’d turned them on, driving in at twilight, and then left them on.

Of course. Because she couldn’t just have one simple getaway to herself. She couldn’t just have a tiny bit of Christmas happiness. No. She had to run into Charlie freaking Brown. And have him ruin her favorite Christmas movie by sitting there all smug, like he had never done her any harm. Not to mention inspiring obscene fantasies she didn’t want to be having and… tears were pricking her eyes… and she was freezing and now… her breath hitched… now her battery was—

Knock, knock, knock. “You okay in there?”

Ming jumped about a mile. She turned. Charlie. Standing outside her window, looking concerned.

She took another deep breath and let it out.[* *]Just great.

“I’m—” she pulled the window control before realizing it, of course, wasn’t going to budge. She cracked the door. “I’m fine. Battery’s dead.”

“Oh! Let me jump you!”

She shot him an evil look. This time the streetlights made it very clear he was blushing.

“You know what I mean.” She said nothing, so he added with a smile, “Come on, it’s right up my alley. I am an electrical engineer, you know.”

She did know. A very promising one, from what she had seen in her cyber-snooping. He’d won a grant to research some new method of nano-something that might revolutionize something as we know it. The bastard. Not that it had anything to do with him helping her get her car started.

She weighed her options. A few more uncomfortable minutes with Charlie and then on her way home in a warm car or waiting God knew how long for a tow truck on Christmas Day. In the snow. Without a coat.

“Fine.”

He smiled, clapped his hands together. “Great!” She noticed he was wearing the same insulated orange gloves he’d had in high school. They were just as asinine now as they had been then. “Let me just go get my car and… oh, crud.”

Who says “crud”?

“What, Charlie?”

“I just remembered, my mom took all the extra stuff we usually keep in the car out to make room for all her last-minute Christmas shopping. I don’t think she put the cables back.”

“Well, go check, then!”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I don’t have to. I saw them sitting in the garage when I left earlier. I was going to grab them, but I was already late for the movie. I didn’t want to miss any of it.”

She really wished he had missed all of it at this point.

“An electrical engineer with no jumper cables on him. Impressive.”

“Cute, Ming. Very cute. Do you have cables?”

Did she? Wait, yes, she did!

“Do I have cables?” Thank goodness one of them was prepared.

She brushed past him and walked around to the trunk, where she grabbed the jumble of cords and thrust it at him. He fumbled with it.

“Does the electrical engineer need me to help him with that?”

“Nooo. Uh…”

Jeez. “What?”

“Ming, this is only one cable. This is a single jumper cable.”

Crap. Really? “Maybe the other one’s still in the—”

“No. It’s empty,” he said, looking into the trunk.

“Oh.” And then the jerk actually started cracking up.

“This is funny to you?”

“I just… I didn’t even know it was possible to have only one—I mean, they usually come permanently attached to each other.”

She glared at him. “Your parents should have just named you ‘Blockhead.’”

His smile dropped. “You know, Ming, I’m just trying to help you. You don’t need to snap at me.”

She didn’t need to, but it sure felt good. She grabbed the tangle of useless cable back from him and shoved it back in the trunk, which she slammed shut.

“Well, thank you, anyway. I don’t need your help. I’ll just call Triple A.” She pulled out her phone, hoping the number was stored. If it was, it didn’t matter. The phone was dead, too.

Was this some kind of punishment for opting to go to the movie over the game of fortune cookie dreidel her parents had offered to play?

“Here.” Charlie handed her his phone. 96 percent. Typical.

She dug out her membership[* *]card, made the call, and handed the phone back to him.

“Thanks. All set. You can go now.”

He shrugged. “I’ll wait with you.”

She shot him a tight smile. “Very gallant, but I’ll be fine.”

“You have no phone, the place is deserted, it’s snowing heavily, and you’re dressed for winter in Los Angeles, and how long did they say it’d be?”

She could lie. He’d probably know she was lying and make a big deal of it, though.

“An hour or two,” she mumbled.

“I’m staying.”

“At the most. And only because… the storm’s so bad,”[* *]she added quietly. Not really helping, Ming.

“I’m staying.”

“Fine,” she said, refusing to acknowledge the part of her that felt relieved not to have to be here all alone. “You can go wait in your car till the guy gets here.” She climbed back into the driver’s seat of her car and wrapped her sweater around her.

“Are you flipping kidding me?” said Charlie.

“Are you flipping really using the word ‘flipping’?” Seriously, what a dork. For the life of her she couldn’t figure out what had possessed her to want to go to a prom with him anyway, platonically or not.

Wham! There they were between the posters again. Damn her mind. What the hell did it think it was doing? Although, maybe this was just hypothermia setting in.

“Come on. You’re freezing.” He held his hand out to her to help her out of the car. Because apparently it was 1940, in the movie and out. She slapped it away.

“You can wait in your car, Charlie Brown.”

“I will. And so should you. I have this crazy new invention called ‘heat’ in there.”

“I’ll be fine.” If she sat on her hands, surely that would stave off frostbite for an hour or two.

Charlie stood there staring at her. She stared forward, concentrated on the puffs of visible breath floating out in front of her, and willed him to go already. To her side, she heard the rustle of nylon against nylon.

Suddenly, an enormous ball of ski jacket was stuffed in front of her. He was giving her his coat.

She turned to protest, but Charlie was already on his way back to his car, hunched against the cold. His feet left silent prints in the wet, new snow as he walked. Ass.

She leaned forward and sank into the pillow of a jacket. Still warm. It also smelled like him. Why did she know what he smelled like? More importantly, why the hell did she like it?

A moment later, she was stalking after him.

“Hey, Chuck!” she yelled. He turned.

“I’m not taking your coat.” She had caught up to him, halfway to his car. She shoved the warm ball of fluff back at him.

“This is stupid, Ming. Come wait in my car. It’s seventeen degrees out here.”

She huffed. She didn’t need his sarcastic exaggerations right now. He nodded behind her. The digital display outside the Village Credit Union blinked. Seventeen degrees.

Well, whatever. The tow truck guy could be here in as soon as 55 minutes.

A gust swept through. Her face stung, but only a little because she could only half feel it.

“Fine. I will wait in your car.”

“Okay. Good. Let’s go.”

She girded herself for him to push the coat back on her, but he didn’t. Which was fine. It was his coat, after all. She willed herself not to shiver as she walked as fast as she could toward his car without, she hoped, looking like she was walking as fast as she could.

***

It only took a few minutes for Mrs. Brown’s car to warm up, but between the cold and the awkwardness, it seemed like much longer. Charlie had offered her a blanket from the backseat, which she had gratefully taken, even though she was pretty sure its usual purpose was to protect the upholstery from excess dog fur. And judging by what was clinging to the plaid fleece, it was certainly doing its job. But even as the air warmed up, Ming wasn’t quite ready to let the extra layer of insulation go.

“Music?” Charlie held up a few CDs. Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler. Barry Manilow. His mom certainly had her own taste.

“Oh my God, is the radio still broken?”

She hadn’t driven with Charlie a lot. They had been more school friends than anything else. But there had been a few rides here and there. Home after French Club. Out to a Saturday debate team practice when she hadn’t had another ride. His mom hadn’t bothered to fix the broken tuner because all she listened to was her music anyway. Charlie would bring his own discs when he took the car back then. She remembered being surprised to discover he liked Classic ’80s Alternative, too (for her, it was a Pretty in Pink thing).

Charlie shrugged. “The Neil Diamond kind of grows on you.”

“No thanks.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the hum of the engine, watching the flakes fall.

Ming’s stomach rumbled. Loudly.

She threw a hand over it.

“Sorry. I didn’t really eat.”

“Me neither,” he admitted. “I think I have a fruitcake in the back someone at the office gave my mom.”

“Jumper cables were nonessential, but fruitcake made the list?”

“It’s wedged under the spare. I think she may have been planning to ‘accidentally’ misplace it.” He grinned. “Technically, though, it is food. Do you want some?”

“Ugh.” She winced. “No. Just no. That’s something you don’t wish…”

“On your worst enemy?” He arched a brow. Great. Now they were quoting lines from the movie. Together. And yet…

She smiled in spite of herself. “Let’s not quarrel anymore.” Okay, enough of that. She dug in her bag. “Here, I think I have some—yes! Here we go.”

She pulled out several foil-covered coins and handed a couple to him.

“Hanukah gelt!”

Chag Sameach!”[_ _]She held her coin up in a toast.

They both smiled. And for a moment she felt almost comfortable. Weird.

As she was opening her second coin, Charlie cleared his throat.

“Ming, can I ask you something?”

“Can I stop you?” she asked. But she smiled.

“Why do you hate me?”

Oh, shit.

“I don’t hate you.”

“Oh, and I suppose you love me?” he quoted the movie again, this time with a sly grin.

But she was no longer in the mood. “I don’t hate you.” She didn’t, too. Not really. Did she?

He turned squarely toward her in the suddenly much-more-cramped-feeling car. “Seriously. I mean, I’m guessing we’re not going to hang out in California, so this is the last time we’ll see each other until who knows when. Maybe ever.”

Ming felt a strange pang. Nostalgia, definitely. The town, the theater, present company, they were all just playing tricks on her. Well, she would just ignore it.

She looked out the window. “Yeah. Maybe.”

“So just tell me what happened. What changed? I know it’s not like we were ever really close or anything, but I thought we’d reached something resembling mutual respect there for a while. I mean, you were reasonably nice to me through most of high school. And I think I’ve been pretty, I don’t know, gentlemanly over the years, given our history—”

Gentlemanly? Gentlemanly?!

Because refusing to be seen with her outside of official school hours even for one night was gentlemanly. Leaving her on her own while he went to the dance with his guy friends (because apparently there was no problem with that) and then almost certainly spending the night laughing at her was gentlemanly. Because, what? Heaven forbid he have to look at her in a dress rather than a Statistics Club T-shirt and pretend it didn’t disgust him. Right, sure, that was gentlemanly.

“You know what?” she said, practically tripping over her own feet to get out. “Thanks, but no thanks. I think I’m going to wait in my car.”

***

She was halfway across the parking lot, wrestling to wrap the blanket around her so she stayed warm and also didn’t trip over it when she realized: she’d taken his blanket. Well, screw it. She’d have her mom drop it by his parents’ house after she flew home. Yeah, that would work.

She flung the long end of the thing over her shoulder and soldiered on. The wind had picked up, and the flakes had become smaller, which if she recalled correctly, meant it was getting colder. Was that right? It sure felt like it was getting co—

Suddenly, the world spun up on its end and Ming found herself colder, wetter, in pain, and horizontal. Goddamn black ice. Now she remembered why she had been happy to move away from New England.

“Ming!”

Charlie practically skated to her side, skidding to a halt at her head and looking down from above. The streetlight made a halo of his curls. Perfect.

“Are you okay?”

He came around beside her as she started to get up and reached out a hand. She ignored it.

“I am fine. I keep telling you I’m fi—” She buckled as she tried to put her weight on her left leg. She landed flat on her butt in the snow. Tears came. She didn’t try to stop them.

“You’re not fine. You’re hurt.”

“I’ll be okay.” Even she didn’t really believe her own choked-up voice. Could this day get any worse?

“Okay, hold still,” he said. And before she realized what was happening, Charlie had scooped her up in his arms. It was actually pretty impressive how easily he’d done it. Had he been working out?

Why did she care if he’d been working out?

“Put me down!”

He just laughed.

He was walking back toward his car now. The way he was carrying her meant her head was pressed against his chest. His warm, surprisingly solid chest. Which really ran counter to the whole “Charlie Brown” dork/loser persona. She found it very irritating.

“I said put me down.” She swung her legs wildly.

He tightened his grip.

“Are you trying to get more hurt?”

“I wouldn’t get hurt if you would just set me down like I asked.”

“If you try to walk on that ankle, you could injure it further.”

“I’m willing to take that risk.”

“What the hell is your problem, Ming?”

Her problem?

But he was still talking. “Believe it or not, I didn’t have some great design in running into you today. I wanted to get out of the house for a little while. I went to the movies. There you were.”

Just her luck.

“It’s not like I sought you out. Quite the opposite. I left you alone in L.A. because I knew it was what you wanted.”

Oh, really?

“How do you know what I want?”

He stopped right there in the middle of the parking lot and stared at her. Then, without even acknowledging the question, he continued on.

“I saw you today and I figured I would be polite. Maybe I was overcome by some crazy wave of nostalgia. Maybe I thought after all these years you would be over whatever this is.”

“‘Whatever this is’?”

“Yeah. You know. This insistence on tormenting me.”

Now she laughed.

He shook his head. “What did I ever do to you, Ming? First,” he somehow held a finger up without losing his grip on her, “you reject me, th—”

Oh, no way.

She wrenched herself forward and pushed away, forcing him to set her down to avoid dropping her. She stood on her good foot, wobbling as she struggled to balance in her agitation.

I rejected you?!”

He blinked at her. A silent puff of frozen breath emerged from his mouth.

She narrowed her eyes to slits.

“Yes!” he said. “You rejected me.”

“When did I reject you?”

“Uh, freshman year?”

“Freshman year.”

“Freshman year!”

The freshman dance? She scanned her memory, but there wasn’t anything else he could have meant. She rejected him when he asked her out at his parents’ instructions?

“Well, if you were so upset about me not going to a dance with you, why did you turn down my invitation to the prom?”

“Because I’m not a masochist?”

“Noooo. You are definitely not a masochist. Masochists hurt themselves. You just wound other people.”

His eyebrows shot up at that, then knit together, perplexed.

“You were wounded? Because I turned down your casual, platonic invitation to the prom?”

Oh, right. Because it was, after all, totally casual and platonic. “It’s still no fun to be rejected.”

“You don’t say.”

They seemed to have run out of steam, so for a moment, they just stood there staring at each other. What the hell was going on here? He was upset about the freshman dance? It didn’t make sense.

“I still don’t get it, Ming,” he said, echoing her thoughts. “Why’d you do it, exactly?”

“The freshman dance? I told you. I had to go to my cousins’ that weekend.” She actually had gone there after she told him she was going to, now that she thought about it, somehow wanting to make good on the white lie. She had felt bizarrely guilty about making up the excuse. Which was weird, considering he had to have been relieved she’d said no.

“No. The prom. Why did you ask me? Were you just bored? Were you mad at me for scoring ten points higher on the English subject test?”

What? She stifled a laugh. He had been fixated on that English test since they took it. Probably because she kicked his ass on the Math Level 2 one.

She smiled. “You know, that test…” she started, but then stopped cold when she looked at him. He was deadly serious. What was going on here?

She shifted uncomfortably, momentarily forgetting her hurt ankle.

“Ow!” She winced. “Dammit!”

Charlie swooped in beside her, wrapping an arm around her to support her as she steadied herself back on the one foot. She looked up into his eyes.

He spoke softly, but with an edge she didn’t recognize. “What the hell would you have done if I had called your bluff and said yes?”

“It wasn’t a… bluff… I…”

“Of course it was. Take a cheap shot at the kid who asked you out years before. Hilarious. I know when I’m being made fun of, Ming. I just thought we’d gotten past that. I thought we were friends.”

“I did, too. We were. I didn’t…” She stopped as it sank in. He thought she asked him to the prom to be mean? “I would never do that.”

He squinted at her, considering.

Crap.[* *]She couldn’t believe she was about to admit this, but…

“I just asked because I thought you would say yes. I didn’t even go to the prom because I was so humiliated.”

You were humiliated?”

“I told you. It’s no fun to be rejected.”

He shook his head and chuckled. “Yeah, well. You think I had fun hanging out with Brian and Marcel all night?”

“Sure. I’m sure you had tons of fun laughing at me.”

“I would never laugh at you, Ming.”

He looked so sincere. Suddenly, she was conscious of how close they were standing. He was still holding her up. There was nothing else for her to lean on, there in the middle of the snowy parking lot, flakes still fluttering down around them.

“Then,” she heard her own, tiny voice saying, “why didn’t you go with me? Like you said, we were friends, right?”

“Yeah. Sure.” He grinned. “Despite our rocky start.”

“The freshman dance?”

He nodded.

He was nuts. She had to ask.

“Why would you be upset about that anyway?”

He laughed. “Uh, let’s see. I ask a girl out for the first time and she says, and I quote, ‘I have to go help my cousin clean out her rat cage.’”

She snorted. “Wow. I said that?” She had not recalled that part. He nodded.

“Okay, okay. I admit that’s not the most eloquent of refusals, but come on! It worked out for both of us. I mean, you didn’t want to go to that dance any more than I did.”

He blinked. “Why would you say that?” he asked. He took a step back, leaving her to balance on her own.

“Because!”

He stared blankly at her.

“Charlie, Brian told me.”

Nothing.

“You know, about your parents worrying about your social life and insisting you ask someone, regardless of whether you actually wanted… Oh, God.”

When she said it out loud, she could hear how ludicrous it sounded.

Charlie gave her a lopsided smile. “I’m sure Brian had my best interests at heart. Defending a fourteen-year-old’s manhood is a tough gig.”

She was almost afraid to ask, but…

“So you asked me…”

“Because I wanted to go to the dance with you.”

Oh, God.

“Charlie, I’m so sorry. You know, I was a kid. I’d never been on a date. It freaked me out when you asked me. Plus, I barely knew you. We had only met a couple months before, and I thought you were kind of…”

“A dork?”

She hung her head. “I’m sorry.”

He offered her his arm again. “It was a long time ago. Come on, let’s get back to my car.”

He helped her limp along in what felt like amicable silence. But she couldn’t leave it like that.

“That was then, though,” she said. “After that, I got to know you and I realized—”

“How cool I actually was?” He grinned.

She laughed.

“That you were a total dork.”

“Ah.” He smiled.

They’d reached the car and she rested against the side. He leaned past her to open the passenger door. His ridiculously long scarf dangled in front of her. She lifted a hand to touch the soft knit.

“And that dorks are seriously underrated.”

He stopped and looked at her, hand resting motionless on the door handle.

“Charlie, I didn’t ask you to the prom to make a joke out of you. I asked you because I wanted to put on a fancy dress and drink spiked punch and dance… with you.”

They stood there frozen, her leaning against the car, him leaning over her, breath and words hanging in the air, staring at each other. She could see him doing the math. Charlie was always very good at math.

“But that was a long time ago,” he said at last.

She smiled. “Feels like yesterday.”

A slow grin spread across his face, his eyes held hers for a long moment, then slipped down to her mouth. He moved closer, closer, and—

“Hey, one of you call about a dead battery?”

They turned simultaneously to see a burly, bald guy leaning out the window of his tow truck. He had managed to drive right up to them without either of them noticing. They must’ve been distracted, somehow…

Ming sheepishly raised her hand.

“You still need assistance or is your friend here gonna jump you?”

She felt the color rise to her cheeks.

Charlie raised an uncharacteristically suggestive eyebrow. “I’m working on it.”

She blushed more. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He was so close, staring at her with such intensity. She closed her eyes as his lips brushed hers and—

“Okay, then! You kids stay safe on the roads tonight!”

Aaaa! Ming came to her senses just in time.

“Wait! Sir!” She tried to chase the truck as it pulled away, but her ankle gave again. Charlie caught her as she fell.

Fortunately, the tow truck stopped. The driver leaned out again.

“Yeah?”

Charlie propped her back against the car and went over to talk to the guy. She saw him point over to the Accord.

“Thanks, we’ll be right there.” He waved as the truck started[* *]across the lot.

He came back and helped her into the car.

“We’d better get over there,” he said as he dropped into the driver’s seat beside her. “He’ll need your keys.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“And you must be frozen,” he said with concern.

He turned the key, the engine caught and rumbled as it idled. Charlie reached for the heat control. She put her hand over his, leaned across the small car, and kissed him. It was 7:26 at night, and more than a little late, but it felt like Christmas morning.

About the Author

Laurie Baxter has degrees in both puppetry and screenwriting because let’s face it, majoring in English would have been no more useful and way less fun. She loves chocolate, ice cream, chocolate ice cream, dogs, New York City, old movies, modern architecture, all kinds of theater, and music from before she was born. Her eighth grade English teacher told her to become a writer, so she did.

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Also by Laurie Baxter

Veronica Mars: Caller ID

A Cute Pair of Shorts

All I Want For Christmas is…?

Monique McDonell

All I want for Christmas is…?

I was staring at myself in the three-way mirror. Since I was standing on a podium I could really take in the full picture. I looked like I had run away from the set of Gone With the Wind. That is if all the costumes in the movie had been made of nylon and tulle and were also an iridescent shade of lavender. Oh yes, and if the run-away in question had dark circles under her eyes and hair in a messy brown bun on top of her head.

This was the bridesmaid’s dress my cousin has chosen for me and she had managed to pull off the holy trinity of bridesmaid dress rules. Ugly, itchy and unflattering. Tick. Tick. Tick. I pulled at where the synthetic lace scratched the side of my neck.

“So what do you think?” Anne asked, her face full of expectation. “It’s a classic style isn’t it?”

I needed to find a polite response and fast. Anne was forty and marrying for the first time. She’d been planning her wedding since she was ten, which explained why every detail looked like it came from the eighties.

“It is certainly striking.” That was all I could manage.

I had to take some responsibility for this disaster. Anne had been calling and emailing me for six months asking for my thoughts on dresses and I had been a hopeless bridesmaid. I’d barely responded, I’d been detached and now I was being punished.

I handed her my phone and asked her to grab a photo. “Cassie will want to see this.”

My best friend Cassie was no doubt back in Sydney having amazing sex with her new boyfriend, a very hot firefighter. Meanwhile I was here in Chameleon Bay, dressed in tulle in the middle of a heatwave. Anne’s wedding was the day before Christmas Eve and it looked like we were in for a scorching summer this year.

“I’m so glad you’re here now, Miranda,” she said. “The truth is my mum is pretty useless with this wedding stuff and Dave isn’t all that interested in details. You and I are going to have such fun!”

Anne was a kindergarten teacher who had waited a long time for love. She was one of the sweetest people I’d ever known and she deserved the wedding of her dreams. I might be ten years younger than her, extremely cynical about love and just a little bit world weary, as any emergency room doctor on the planet, but I still wanted her to get what she wanted.

“I’m sorry I was not more help up until now. I guess my hours make me somewhat anti-social.”

She looped her arm through mine as I stepped off the podium in the one and only bridal shop for a hundred miles. The one I knew she had spent countless hours standing in front of, staring through the window. They’d opened the shop for us early so we could try on the dress before Anne went off to work. “None of that matters now. You’re here and we’re planning my wedding.”

An hour later, I was walking alone down the main street of town. Behind the row of shops to my right was the river, and if I walked for five minutes to my left I’d reach the beach and my grandmother’s house. Right then I needed coffee. Even when it was hot as hades I needed my caffeine fix.

I’d been told the old boatshed on the river was now a new café and had the best coffee in town. I knew this town like the back of my hand. I’d spent all my summers here growing up and then every break I’d gotten while in boarding school. My grandmother’s house and this town were as close to a home as I got. My father was a soap opera star who managed to crack it big in the United States when I was a teenager. My parents had moved for a life of fame and my grandmother had stepped in to take care of me.

It did feel a little cooler as I got closer to the river. I spotted the boatshed. It was decorated in a shabby chic style with old surfboards, crab pots and an eclectic mix of seaside memorabilia. Inside, a few people sat at tables made from old crates, and a tall man stood behind the coffee machine.

He caught my eye and gave me a smile. His eyes were blue. He had a few days of stubble on his chin and sandy hair with that ‘just surfed in’ look. I used to be a sucker for guys like this when I was young. Not anymore. These days I liked a man who wore a suit, had a regular job and owned a car that was manufactured this century.

My phone beeped and it was Cassie.

“That dress” was her entire message. What more can one say?

I smiled at the barista. “Extra-large cappuccino with a double shot, please.”

“To have here?” I nodded. “I’ll bring it over.”

I took a seat at one of the tables and looked around. It was nine-thirty on a Monday. Didn’t these people have jobs? Every one of them had a lazy, mellow look about them, including the handsome barista who carried over my coffee.

“There you go.”

“Ah, thank you.”

“Are you new in town or visiting?’ He asked me as he collected some cups from a nearby table and wiped it down.

“Visiting. In town for a wedding.” I took a large sip of my coffee and sighed.

“Anne and Dave’s wedding?” I nodded, taking another sip.

“You wouldn’t perhaps be ‘my granddaughter, Miranda the doctor’ by any chance.”

I sometimes forget that small towns are like that. Everyone shares everyone else’s business. “You know my grandmother then?”

He gave me a cheeky lop-sided grin. “Is there anyone around here who doesn’t?”

“I doubt it.” I answered with a smile. My grandmother was a former vaudeville actress. She was raised in a travelling theatre and had quite a name for herself in the early days of Australian television. These days she dresses like Endora from Bewitched in long flowing kaftans and when the mood strikes she adds a turban. To say that she is a character is an understatement. Like Madonna or Beyoncé she is known only by her first name, Elspeth. Even growing up, my father had to call her that. She’s a crazy over-the top character and yet the very thought of her brings a smile to my face.

“I am Miranda,” I added. “And it is fair to say everything you’ve heard about me has been greatly embellished.”

“How disappointing.” He placed the cups on the counter. “I was looking forward to meeting the sweetest, kindest, smartest, funniest woman in the world.”

That sounded like Elspeth. “Sorry.”

“I’m Connor. Connor Shaw. And I’m Dave’s brother so I’m the best man.”

I leant closer to him and whispered. “Is your suit purple?”

“You saw your dress, huh?” He gave a shudder. “I believe I’ll be wearing a purple cummerbund, tie and accessories.”

I couldn’t help cringing. “That sounds … gorgeous.”

He moved closer and gave me a cheeky smile. “I’m your prom date Miranda,” he said, with a lift of his eyebrows, “and there will be slow dancing.”

And suddenly the wedding looked a whole lot better.

***

The walk home wasn’t long but it gave me time to think. The wedding had been a perfect excuse to get out of dodge. The truth was I was burnt out and run down. I had worked eighty-hour weeks for so many years now it had begun to seem normal. My best friend had a new sexy boyfriend and I had to admit I was more than a little jealous. Despite how those television shows set in hospitals made it look, I hadn’t met too many patients worth swooning over, or other doctors for that matter.

I was over-worked, over-tired and in serious danger of being constantly overlooked.

When I arrived back at my grandmother’s after my coffee, a slow trickle of sweat was running down my back from the walk and eight septuagenarians were in the downward dog position in her garage. Elspeth has done a rough conversion to it and now referred to it as her ‘studio’ but it was for all intents and purposes still a garage. I admired these women. In my job I saw many frail old people brought into the ER every day with broken bones and bodies that were giving out. These ladies were fighting it all the way.

I tried to sneak inside where the fans would be blowing but I had to stop and dispense all manner of medical advice as Elspeth’s doctor-grand-daughter. So another hour passed. Time moved at its own languid pace here. It was tropical time and I had a hard job pulling back from my city frenzy.

My grandmother and I had several things in common and one was our love of sandwiches. Neither of us cooked anything much that couldn’t be put between two slices of bread. I whipped us up some BLT’s and she poured us each a cheeky chardonnay for lunch.

We sat in the lounge-room staring at the twinkling lights of her Christmas tree. It had only been up three days and like me, it was looking a little tired and wilted. The heat was zapping its energy, like life had zapped mine. Despite that, like all things my grandmother touched, it was still trying to put on a good show, adorned as it was with a lifetime of memories in the form of ornaments including, I noted, the popsicle stick manger I’d made in the second grade.

“I’m so glad you’re here, my dear. And Anne, dear sweet thing, is thrilled.” Elspeth raised her glass at me.

“I’m not sure I deserve a toast. I’m the world’s worst bridesmaid.”’

She harrumphed. “Ridiculous. I’ve seen far worse. And really how do you help a girl prepare for a wedding she’s had planned since aged nine? She wouldn’t have listened to your suggestion that perhaps a baby’s breath wreath on her head is a tad passé anyway.”

“She’s not really wearing one?” I started and my wine sloshed, a small wave sliding over the edge and onto the sofa.

My grandmother gave me a nod as she bit into her sandwich. “Try and stop her.”

I decided a change of subject was in order. “I met the best man at the Boat Shed.”

“Oh Dave’s sexy half-brother. Same father, different mothers. He’s very cute. All the ladies have a thing for Connor.”

“Oh, which ladies?” I asked in as casual tone as I could muster. I didn’t want women all over my wedding date.

“Me, of course and Thelma. Young Kate from the post office, Nancy from the grocery store, all the young ladies.”

So that cleared that up, she meant every single woman in Chameleon Bay.

“He hasn’t been here long. Used to have some big job in the city. Won’t talk about it though. Dave says he wanted a sea-change.”

It made sense. If you wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, there were few towns sleepier than ours. I wondered what his story was. Still, if Elspeth couldn’t break him, I had no hope.

“He’s done a great job with the Boat Shed. It looks good and the coffee was delicious.”

“Oh yes. He’s creative. I think he paints as well. Quite the renaissance man,” she assured me as she took a swig of her chardonnay.

He looked more like a surf bum to me, but maybe he had hidden depths. It was hard to tell from one conversation. And as my friend Cassie had informed me before I left Sydney, I needed to try and be less judgmental.

“Why Cass? I’m usually right.”

“You are not usually right. You dismiss people too quickly, you put them in a box and leave them there to rot.”

“I’m not a serial killer.”

“You are socially. You’re killing your own social life one person at a time.”

Maybe she had something. Perhaps Connor, who I thought was a surf bum, was really the highly evolved individual my grandmother thought him to be. It was unlikely, but not impossible.

“Seeing anyone?’ Elspeth asked as if reading my mind.

“Not right now.”

“Not ever.” She peered at me with her appraising eyes. “I bet I’ve been on a date more recently than you have.”

It was entirely likely but still. “One that ended in sex?”

“I’m a lady. I don’t discuss those things.” She took a beat, peering at me over the rim of her wine glass. “Probably, though.”

I was not thrilled to hear my grandmother was getting more action than me. The truth was this wedding week came at the perfect time. My boss had suggested I needed a break after I bit the head off the hundredth intern in a week. I was happy to tell him I already had a week of leave booked. And he had been happy to tell me to extend it to two and to come back with a better attitude after Christmas.

“Miranda,” he said, staring me down. “I know you’re good at your job, but a man is not an island. You have to work with these people.”

“I don’t care if they like me,” I replied. But that was a lie. I did care. People used to like me. I used to be fun.

“Maybe you should care a little bit. People are trying to change their rosters to avoid you.”

“Can they do that?”

“No. And even if they could, no one would swap with them.” He shook his head and came around from behind his desk. “You know I like you, but you need a breather. You need to get some perspective.”

He wasn’t allowed to tell me I needed to get laid because he was my boss but I had a feeling that was what he meant.

I sighed, shaking off the memory of my boss’s pitying look. “Elspeth with my hours it’s kind of hard to meet people.”

“My dear girl, I worked in the theatre, I know what difficult hours are.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of different. People don’t come outside the hospital door at the end of a shift wanting my signature and inviting me for cocktails. In fact, they would like to think I never had a cocktail in my entire life.” I tried to explain it to her, but I knew my explanation would fall on deaf ears. “Life isn’t all fun and games Elspeth.” Mine certainly wasn’t.

“Well, in my experience that just means you’re not doing it right, Miranda.” She gave a shrug. “Maybe you could try being a little friendlier. You’ve changed and I miss the old you.”

“I am friendly.” I growled.

“Yes, I can see that. So sweet. So charming.” She stood and carried her plate to the sink. “Darling, [_I _]know how delightful you are. Maybe you just need to let other people see that side of you. You can start tonight at the wedding rehearsal. Look pretty, wear a dress, and smile.”

“Anything else?”

“No darling, that’ll be plenty. Now I’m off to the hairdressers to make sure I look fabulous.”

The whole afternoon stretched out before me and I had nothing to do. Anne was at work and the rehearsal wasn’t until six.

I went into the room Elspeth kept for me and flopped down on the bed.

Why wouldn’t everyone back off? Surely I wasn’t as cranky and distant as they made out. I was over-worked and over-tired and well, over it, whatever it was, but wasn’t that normal for someone like me?

I glanced up at the open door of the closet. Inside was an array of dresses hanging neatly in rows. Dresses I owned, it seemed. When had I last worn a dress? A year ago maybe? The dresses were a vibrant rainbow of colours in inks, blues and greens as well as stripes and spots and florals.

I sat up and stared down at my open suitcase on the floor. Everything was black, white or gray. Not a jot of colour. I picked up my simple black one-piece swim-suit. Boring. I leaned over and opened a drawer in the bureau beside the bed and pulled out a red bikini. When had I last worn a bikini?

I fell back on the bed, a swimsuit in each hand. Each represented a different version of me. Dark, dull and looming large or small, bright and cheerful. My eyes trained back to the closet. The evidence was there. Elspeth was right. I had changed. I’d lost my old self.

The question was did I want her back?

***

It was two in the afternoon when I decided to hit the beach. The old I would have been in the water the minute she arrived in Chameleon Bay, but the new me only swam laps in sensible swimming pools. I threw a sundress over my bikini and headed across the road. The asphalt shimmered with heat. When I reached the sand, it slid into my thongs, scorching my feet. It was so hot in the middle of the day that the beach was almost deserted at this time. At the far end of the beach, I could see a crazy jogger and over on the rocks a couple of old fishermen.

I lay my towel, hat and dress by one of the flags, slid off my shoes, and headed down to the water. I dove straight in and under, feeling strangely free in my red bikini. I’d always loved bodysurfing and the waves were perfect for someone a little out of practice. Still, I found my rhythm again and remembered why I loved to spend hours in the surf.

Some of it had been about the cute boys and ogling the sexy surfers and lifeguards when I was younger, but mainly it had been the exhilaration of being one with the ocean, or in my more fantastical moments, pretending to be a mermaid.

The last wave I rode carried me all the way to shore, but when I popped above the surface, I realised my bikini top had not made the journey with me. I was standing topless in the surf. Now, it was true that many Australian beaches were topless but I wasn’t really one to indulge and not anywhere my grandmother and her cronies might see me. I ducked neck deep into the water and turned to search.

A male voice cut across the sound of the waves and the seagulls.

“Looking for this?”

There, standing ankle-deep in the surf, was Connor brandishing my bikini top.

“Ah yeah,” I mumbled.

“I saw the whole thing. That was quite a surf in.”

“The whole thing?” I hoped I was the only one catching that double meaning.

He gave me a slow nod. “All of it. Quite a show.”

“Can I have my top? I don’t usually let men see my boobs without buying me dinner first.”

He tossed the offending swimsuit in my direction.

“I have the same problem in reverse usually. I have to buy the dinner first.” He dipped under the water and emerged beside me. “I think this way is much nicer.”

“For you, I’m sure. What are you doing here anyway?”

“Jogging.”

“In this heat? Are you crazy?”

He lay floating on his back. “Probably. I think best when I jog and I was working this morning. Wedding rehearsal tonight … this was my shot.”

“What was so important to think about that you had to jog in a heatwave?”

He gave a slow grin. “Would you believe me if I said you?’

I did not believe him. Not one little bit. I wasn’t a fool. Still, I appreciated the flirting. I grinned back. “I would not.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so. Smart girl.”

And then he flipped over and caught a wave to shore. When he emerged, he honestly looked like some sort of romance cover hero. Slicked back, wet hair, sexy smile. “See you tonight.”

He jogged away.

There wasn’t enough water in the whole Pacific Ocean to cool me off.

***

The rehearsal was in the old stone church. It was the only church in town. We were not a religious family but a church wedding was part of Anne’s dream. I followed my grandmother in through the back door. She was wearing an elaborate red and gold kaftan for the occasion and I was wearing a simple sleeveless blue shirt dress.

We were, it seemed, the last to arrive. Elspeth liked to make an entrance and her arrival was always timed accordingly. My aunt just rolled her eyes at us. She was used to her mother and I’m sure felt that perhaps just once we could have someone else as centre of attention.

Anne, on the other hand, sped down the aisle to embrace us both. “Now we can start.”

The groom and his best man stood at the front of the church talking to the minister. They turned and smiled. Dave was a shorter, balder, slightly stockier version of his half-brother. Connor was a foot taller and a decade younger but they had the same smile. Brothers.

Uncle Harry, father of the bride, sat in the church’s back pew waiting for instructions. He was a man of few words.

“Come on. Come on.” Anne said, grabbing my arm and pulling me to the back door of the church. “We’re ready, father.”

The celebrant nodded and Harry stood.

“You’re up first,” Anne said. The organist began playing Pachelbel’s Canon and I was instructed to walk slowly down the aisle. Apparently I could revive a heart in an ER, but I could not walk in time with the music.

“We’re theatre people darling. This should be easy for you,” Elspeth said after my fourth attempt.

“I prefer a different kind of theatre,” I hissed at her.

“Just take your time dear.” The minister said. “It’s not a race to the finish. It’s a beautiful moment to be savoured.”

It felt like a race to just make it finish to me. It felt ridiculous, not romantic at all. Still the fifth time was apparently acceptable because I was finally allowed to stand off to the side.

“You’ll be fine going back. Connor can guide you,” Elspeth said from the first row, giving him a smile.

“Great.” Not that I cared what Connor thought of me, but so far today, we’d established I couldn’t keep my clothes on and I couldn’t walk with rhythm. I had promised him I didn’t live up to my grandmother’s hype, but I didn’t need to be such a spectacular dork. I was a doctor – surely I could walk.

I looked across at him and he was smirking. Well might he smirk. He only had to stand there.

At the end of the rehearsal which, given the stifling heat of the church, was thankfully short, he linked his arm through mine.

“I’m here to help you,” he whispered.

“Jerk.” A low laugh rumbled out of him. It was a sexy sound, I had to admit. “Wait till you forget the ring …”

“That won’t happen.”

“You’re very smug.”

“It’s all I have to do. Bring the ring … surely even I can manage that.”

“We’ll see. “

“And you might want to try and smile too. You looked like you were walking to the gallows.” If one more person told me to smile I might lose it. “Thanks for the tip.”

“Not a fan of marriage, I take it?”

“It’s kind of an archaic institution, but to each their own. I guess if I could take a wife, I’d feel differently.”

“Huh?” His brow crinkled.

I shrugged. “Men often succeed because they have wives, and women who marry are often no better off except they have kids and housework and a husband, which usually makes them worse off. So if I could take a wife maybe, rather than a husband…”

“My, you are a cynic. Lots of marriages aren’t like that.”

“I’m a realist. I see the truth in action every day,” I said, dropping my arm from his as we reached the back of the church. “I see men around me succeeding all the time and so many women held back by marriage and family.”

“Right. So you’re committed to being very successful but very alone?” His arms were crossed over his fine chest and his eye-brows were raised.

“I wouldn’t exactly put it like that…”

“Well then, as long as you have it all worked out, good for you. I would however, suggest you don’t share that view with the bride and groom. Not very romantic.” He gave his head a shake. “Want to walk with me to the club?”

“I hate the club,” I mumbled

“Why am I not surprised? What is it you hate about the club?”

The truth was the local RSL Club was loud; loud poker machines, loud swirling carpet and poor acoustics. The lighting was harsh, the tables were plastic and the food was terrible. It made me feel overwhelmed and agitated.

“Nothing in particular.” I wasn’t interested in sharing any more with him.

“Right. Another opinion you should keep to yourself,” he said as we were joined at the back of the church by the rest of the group.

“We’re walking,” I announced.

“How romantic,” Elspeth crooned.

“It’s practical,” I snarked back.

“Are you this crabby at home in the city?” Connor asked.

“I’m not crabby.” He widened his eyes at me. “Okay, sorry I am a bit crabby and I apologize. No, I’m not always this crabby but lately … I’m tired.”

“Yeah, well you’re on vacation. Relax and enjoy.” He slung his arm across my shoulder. “Your grandmother told me you loved it here growing up, maybe you can channel a little of that.”

He was right. Sunshine, sea air and now a hot guy with his arm around me. “I’ll try.”

“And for what it’s worth, it feels like the 1970’s threw up the Brady Bunch Variety Hour all over the inside of the club, so if you didn’t find it hideous, there’d be something wrong with you.” He grinned down at me.

I shook my head and lead the way, trying to swallow my smile.

The wedding rehearsal dinner was long. In order to keep my cynicism to myself, I took a sip of my drink every time I wanted to say something that would be unwelcome. That meant I was mainlining champagne. Connor pushed a glass of water my way before the main course arrived.

“Does the good doctor know nothing of hydrating?”

“Apparently not,” I said, sipping the water. “The good doctor is a white hot mess.”

He leaned in and pushed a lock of my hair behind my ear. “You’re a very beautiful mess.”

I just blinked at him. I had no response to that. And then he was gone. Off to give a speech about his brother.

“So, I knew I had to speak at the wedding, but not today. This is a day for family and so I just want to say that Dave was always a great brother to me. We didn’t live together and we had long periods where we were separated, but he always had my back. I always knew if I needed him he’d be there. Anne, that’s the kind of guy you’re marrying. An honest man who you know will always be there for you. You’ve got one of the good ones. I hope your wedding is everything you hope it will be.”

Everyone raised their glasses and I may have swiped a tear away. Who was this guy?

I was spared making my own speech until the wedding. The only other speaker was Elspeth who probably wasn’t meant to talk, but any chance to perform to a crowd and she was on her feet. Her speech was equally lovely.

The night wound down quite quickly. The week before Christmas was a busy one for everyone. Add in a wedding and we all needed an early night.

I hugged the bride and groom tight when I said good-bye. I’d missed that sense of belonging. We were an odd bunch but we were still a family. These people were my family in ways that my own parents were not. They’d been with me year in, year out through boarding school, med school and everything since. I needed to visit more often. I looked across the room at Elspeth and noticed how tired she looked. Yep, it was time to give back.

“I’ll walk you home.” Connor hovered at my shoulder.

“You seem to like walking me places. Maybe you should get a puppy.” Had I just compared myself to a dog?

“Yeah, not the same thing.” He grinned at me. “You’re prettier than a puppy.”

“Your flirting could use some work,” I said, as we exited the club.

“I’m out of practice. The old ladies in town flirt with me, I don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting these days.”

“Did you used to be good at it?” I asked, kicking my shoes off and stepping down onto the cool sand. The moon cast a path on the water and a small breeze had come up while we’d been inside.

“I wasn’t bad. I got the job done.”

“Very romantic. Spoken like a true male.”

He shrugged. “Sometimes it’s not about romance and sometimes it is.”

“But usually not,” I agreed. “At least not in my world.”

“That’s a shame.” He was walking beside me. One hand held mine, and the other held his own shoes.

“I guess it’s pretty life and death. That throws people together and tears them apart. Weird shifts, crazy situations, sometimes people just need to feel a connection, but more than anything you work crazy long hours and you’re too tired to make an effort.”

“Kind of sad.”

“Yeah well, everyone wants their life saved and someone has to do it.” I looked at him. “You haven’t always been a barista.”

“Nah, I used to run an ad agency. I sold it recently.”

I stopped and turned towards him. “How come?”

“I’d had enough. All I did was work and travel. I know that sounds spoiled, but I’d made enough money and I didn’t have that drive anymore. I’d done it all. It felt old and pointless.”

“So, you’re not a beach bum, then?”

“Oh no, I’m a total beach bum now. I’m not that other guy anymore.”

“Don’t you miss it?” Tired as I was, I couldn’t imagine walking away. It would feel like, well, I’d failed.

“I don’t miss the heart palpitations. I don’t miss waking up and having to remember where I am or what time zone I’m in. I don’t miss four hours sleep a night or forgetting my own mother’s birthday.” He made an excellent point. “Now I get to walk on the beach in the moonlight without a thought in my head.”

“Not a thought?”

“Well one.” And then he leaned in and kissed me. Yep, square on the mouth. A slow sexy kiss that had my lady parts standing to attention and my body inching ever closer to his. It was a sultry summer kiss that made me feel like a teenager again, in all the best ways. He leaned back and looked in my eyes. “I’ve wanted to do that for hours.”

“Really?”

“Yep, really.” And then to prove it, he did it again.

***

“So what if it’s just a holiday fling. Who cares?” My best friend Cassie was talking to me as I searched my closet for an appropriate outfit. How I looked today seemed to matter a little bit more than it had yesterday. Now that there was a hot guy who wanted to kiss me in the mix, there were standards to be met.

“I don’t know. We’ll be vaguely related, and what if it’s awkward?”

“You barely visit, as it is. That’s just a cop out. You’re scared of having fun.”

“Yes, I know. And didn’t you used to be too? It was one of the things we had in common.”

“Miranda, you’re a grown woman who hasn’t flirted, much less anything else, with a person not wearing scrubs and a stethoscope for nearly a decade. Let loose, be spontaneous, enjoy.”

“Enjoy?”

“Yeah, do you remember enjoying sex?”

“No one said anything about sex.” Whoa Nelly. That was … well, that would be probably pretty amazing, but sex was complicated.

“Just go with the flow.”

“Said the spider to the fly.”

“Yes. Now trust my Spidey senses and go have fun.”

***

I was meeting Connor at the Boatshed. Well, I wasn’t meeting him so much as turning up to get coffee at his workplace, which I had said I would do today. It wasn’t a date or anything like that. I mean yes I might have done my hair and chosen a particularly cute green floral dress that off-set my eyes, but that was just me relaxing into the holiday mode. Or so I told myself.

“You look nice,” Elspeth peered at me over the top of her newspaper.

“Thanks. I decided to take your advice and get into the spirit of the wedding and the festive season a bit more.”

“Good for you.” She smiled. “I’ve missed you.”

I leaned in and gave her a kiss. She smelled like vanilla as she always had. “Me too.”

“And I’m extra glad you’re staying for Christmas. It’s been years since I had you home.”

“I know. Then again you know Christmas has never really been my thing.”

The truth was ever since my parents had abandoned me for Hollywood, Christmas had been a letdown. I could talk myself through most of their choices and justifications, but when everyone else was celebrating as a family and my parents barely managed a phone call, it was hard to get in the spirit.

“I know honey.” She squeezed my hand. “You’re a grown-up now Miranda. Time to take back the holidays.”

“What?”

“Create your own traditions. Don’t let your past dictate your future.”

“Are we still talking about Christmas?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

I needed coffee. “I’m going to the Boatshed. Did you want to come?”

“No dear, you run along.”

That was lucky.

The café was as busy as the day before. Connor gave me a wave, and I put my bag at a table before placing my order.

“Good morning,” I said. Very formal. What a dork.

“Hi Miranda. Cappuccino?”

“Thanks.” I went back to my table and took out a notebook. I was staying for Christmas and I needed to double-check my list. Anne and Dave would be off on their honeymoon but I still had Elspeth and my aunt and uncle and a hoard of Elspeth’s friends to contend with. I wondered what Connor was doing for Christmas.

The man himself delivered my coffee and sat opposite me. “What are you doing?”

I stopped chewing on my pen to answer. “Christmas list.”

“Am I on it?”

“I don’t know. Have you been naughty or nice this year?”

“You know, a little of both. Want me to show you later?”

I couldn’t help but smile. “Maybe.”

“I can work with maybe.” He stood to go. “I’m off at one. Want to go for a drive?”

“I have to be back by five. Anne is expecting me. The wedding is tomorrow. I need to be the perfect bridesmaid for at least one day.”

“No problem. See you at one. Enjoy your coffee.” His eyes danced. “It’s on the house.”

Okay, so maybe this was kind of a date, even if my date was now back behind his espresso machine fixing beverages for a whole host of other people.

Between coffee and one o’clock, I bought champagne to take over to the bride later that evening and grabbed a few last minute items for my Christmas list. And maybe I might have googled Connor. My grandmother was right. He looked like a chilled-out surfer but he was one of the world’s best young advertising minds. He’d sold his business to an international agency for an absolute ton of money and walked away.

There had to be a story there. No one walked away at thirty-five. No one.

I was waiting out front when Connor picked me up. I didn’t know where we were heading, so I had a swimsuit, a towel, a hat, a jacket and about a million other things in my rather heavy bag.

“Travelling light I see,” he teased, hauling my bag onto the back seat.

“I like to be prepared.”

“Control freak,” he muttered.

“Hey, I heard that,” I said as he swung himself into the car.

“Am I wrong?” He cocked an eyebrow.

“It’s part of the job. I have to be in control.”

“Well, Miranda, you’re not at work now so how about you relinquish some control and relax.”

“I am relaxed.”

“Tell that to the door handle.’ He was right. I was holding on for dear life. The car wasn’t even going and I was white-knuckling it. What a head case! “So, where are we going?”

“Relax and relinquish.”

I shook my head. “I don’t need your hippy crap, Connor.”

“Oh yeah, well I think you’re wrong. I think my laid-back, opt out, walk away hippy crap is exactly what you need … at least for today.” He gave me a big grin.

Okay, for today.

We drove with the windows down and the summer breeze blowing through the car. The ocean was to our right for a while, and then Connor took a turn left towards the hinterland. He took a small by-road and pulled to a stop beside a gate.

“Now we need to walk.” He wound up the windows and climbed out of the car.

“What should I bring?”

“You can bring that whole bag … or you can trust me.”

It felt like a test. “Is this a test?”

“It’s a choice, not a test Miranda.” He gave his head a what-am-I-going-to-do-with-her shake.

I chose to trust. He took my hand and led me along a path to a waterfall. It was beautiful and I’d never been here before.

“Welcome to my very favourite place, Chameleon Falls.”

“How do I not know about these? They’re beautiful.” It was a tropical oasis like one sees in the movies, and it was hidden only a half an hour from town.

“They’re on private property,” he said. “So they’re not exactly advertised.”

“Are we trespassing?” I wasn’t much of a law-breaker these days.

“Nope, I own them. I own the mountain and about twenty acres.”

Wow, I mean I knew he was wealthy so I guess that made sense. “It’s beautiful. “

The area was rainforest so the water fell between ferns and palms and vines into a pristine pool. The sun shone, birds sang, and the water sparkled in the pool beneath the falls. It was magical.

“Yeah, that’s why I bought it. I want to preserve it.” He gave me a cheeky smile. “Oh and also I want to be able to swim here whenever I feel like it.”

I laughed. “You liked the waterfall so you bought it huh?”

“Something like that. My mum brought me here as a kid and we had a really great day.”

“Have you brought her back here?”

“She has MS.” He lowered his gaze to the ground. “She can’t come here in her chair.”

“I’m sorry.” I gave his arm a squeeze. “That sucks.”

“Is that your professional opinion doctor?”

“Damn straight.”

I gave him a grin. He was spreading out a large picnic blanket on a rock. He took off the backpack he’d brought with him and unpacked a picnic. “I brought lunch.”

“Yum!”

“Swim or eat first?” My stomach growled.

“Okay, I think we have a winner.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” We sat down on the blanket and he opened a bottle of wine, handing me a glass.

“Thanks. This is all so nice,” I said, raising a glass. “To new friends.”

“To new friends.”

We made small talk as we ate. He told me about the café and moving to town. I told him a few funny stories from the hospital.

“Do you love it?” he asked.

I had to pause for a moment. Did I? I didn’t even know anymore. “I used to love it. I still love helping people, making them better or whole again, but there are a lot of people I can’t make whole. It wears you down sometimes.”

“I can only imagine. I got burned out and my job was way less stressful.”

“So you quit?”

He laughed. “See, I knew you’d use the word quit. Over-achieving people like you, still stuck in the hamster wheel always say I quit. I didn’t quit. I made a new plan.”

“Semantics.”

“Seriously?” He shook his head. “That’s a typical overworked Type A personality response right there. I built a successful company, I ran some amazing campaigns and I made a lot of money. I was repeating myself. So I sold up, gave someone else a chance and created a new life. Do you really think I should stay working fourteen-hour days for another twenty years just because I was good at it, even if it made me miserable?”

“I guess not. It just seems … a shame.”

“Or maybe it was really brave to walk away?” he suggested. “A leap of faith.”

Maybe he was right. I mean he was lying here on a rock beside his own waterfall drinking wine at lunchtime. I was the stressed out one with no social life whose colleagues had as good as thrown her out of the hospital. I drained my glass rather than answer.

“Speaking of leaps. You want to jump in?”

“My swimsuit is in the car,” I said.

His eyes roamed my body. “You don’t need a suit.”

“Skinny dipping? Are you serious?” I had done my fair share of skinny dipping as a teen, but it usually involved the cover of darkness and not some hot guy I barely knew.

“I saw most of the good stuff yesterday.” He winked at me. “Anyway you’re a doctor. I would have thought the naked human body was nothing to you.”

“Other people’s bodies are no big thing to me.”

“Well, I’m other people.” He shrugged.

“And you’re saying you’re no big thing?”

“I didn’t say that.” He threw his head back and laughed. “And there’s only one way to find out. Are you game?”

Hell no, I wasn’t. But sometimes you just have to throw caution, and your clothing, to the wind.

***

Connor looked even better naked. He peeled off his shorts and stood with his back to me ready to dive in. I was still in my bra and undies and got distracted by the sight of him.

“Are you coming in, Doc, or are you just going to ogle me?”

“Eyes forward,” I instructed him.

Then I tore off my underwear as fast as I could and ran past him, taking a flying leap into the water and landing with an inelegant splash.

I heard the sound of Connor landing as I broke through the water and came up for air. It wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t exactly warm either.

Connor’s head popped up a few feet away. He wore a huge grin on that sexy face of his.

“See, this is both naughty and nice, right?”

“It certainly is that.”

“You know,” he said, treading water beside me, “Anne has told me some pretty wild stories about you as a teenager and your grandmother’s version is of this sweet, serious girl. I wondered who was right. Now I see they both were.”

“I had my share of crazy summers here but Elspeth was never one to rein me in. She only sees the good in people, even the deadbeat boyfriends she probably should have run off with a stick.”

I swam towards the waterfall. It was loud. That was good. Then I didn’t need to talk. I was not one for talking about my past – or my present for that matter – and talking naked just added an extra layer of vulnerability.

I ducked under the curtain of the waterfall into the cool cave behind it and Connor was hot on my heels.

“Do you swim here often?” I yelled.

“As often as I can,” he yelled back.

“Naked?”

“Sure, why not?”

Why not indeed? “Do you bring all your dates here?”

“You’re the first.”

I didn’t know whether to be flattered or terrified. “Well, um, thanks.”

“Something about you made me want to share it with you.”

“Would that be my charming up-beat personality?” I teased. Knowing I was more like a Grinch than a Christmas fairy.

“No, that probably wasn’t it. I just find this place is good for my soul, and I thought it might be good for yours, too.”

“Is that part of the hippy crap?”

“You don’t have to be a hippy to appreciate nature and its power to make you feel better.”

That was true. In fact, there were plenty of medical studies that focused on that very thing. “Thanks for bringing me here.”

I was trying to keep my distance because as much as the thought of touching his hot male body appealed to me, and as much as I wanted to be kissed again, I had a feeling that once I took the next step towards Connor, stepping away was going to be hard.

The truth was I was lonely in Sydney, sick and tired of taking on the world all alone. Coming here had shown me that. Having this very nice man treat me very nicely had shown me that it was way too long since I’d been with anyone decent. That made me sad. And it made me pathetic.

Connor held his hand out. “Come on. Let’s swim out where it’s quieter.”

Hand holding and naked swimming I could do. We swam across the pond to the shallows, not too shallow thank heavens, and then he dropped my hand. I kind of missed the warmth.

“What made you walk away from corporate life?”

“You mean, what was the inciting incident?”

“Yeah. I suppose.”

His smile faded. “My mother had a fall. She was on the floor of her apartment for 3 days before anyone found her. I was off in New York drinking champagne and hitting on inappropriate women and my mother was in pain alone. It was kind of a reality check.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Of course it was.

“Is she okay now?”

“Not really. She’s in a home, not far from here. She needs twenty-four-hour care. She probably needed it for a while, but I didn’t pay close enough attention. I didn’t see what I should have seen.”

“She probably did a good job of covering up. That’s not uncommon.”

“Sure, but a lot of that is on me. I mean I had the resources to take better care of her and I just was too self-centred to know she needed them. And if she didn’t want to take up my time, that doesn’t reflect too well on me either, does it?” He shrugged.

“So you changed your whole life?”

“People are more important than money and accolades. I didn’t quit my job because I wasn’t good at it. I changed my life so I wasn’t a horse’s ass anymore.”

I smiled. “Are you totally sure about that? I’m sure you still have your moments.”

He splashed me then. “Unlike yourself.”

“Oh no, I’m a horse’s ass, as you put it, most of the time, as well you know.”

“So what are you going to do about that?” he asked.

“Right now? Nothing.” And then I gave him a huge splash back and we laughed until our naked sides ached.

***

We didn’t make out on the picnic, which was a shame. Two naked adults and no making out. Maybe he wasn’t attracted to me when he saw the full package. Or maybe he didn’t want to make out with an unreformed ass such as myself.

I tried not to care about that. I’d spent a wonderful afternoon with a really great guy. He’d taken me somewhere special to him. That was a whole lot of something, and to be fair I’d only known him two days.

He pulled up in front of my grandmother’s house at 4.30, which gave me plenty of time to get around to Anne’s on time.

“Thanks for a really great afternoon.”

“My pleasure. Nothing like a naked swim with a beautiful woman to make my day just about perfect.”

“Just about? What would make it perfect?” I felt my brow crease in concern.

“This.” And then he leaned in and claimed my mouth with his. Okay so maybe he did like me after all.

It had been a long-time since I’d made out in a truck in the cold light of day outside my grandmothers’ house. About sixteen years to be exact. Of course, that time I’d been with Zach, my first and only true love. That was one hot summer.

I wasn’t that girl anymore. In fact, I’d promised myself I’d never be that girl again. I was never going to let my heart be broken again and certainly not by a guy whose only plan was to surf his way through the next decade or more. And the truth was I hadn’t been that girl. I’d kept to my word and been serious and studious and hard-working. And I’d worked just as hard at keeping my heart protected.

Until now. Maybe Connor wasn’t my destiny but he made me feel things, want things, imagine things I couldn’t have. I lived in the city hundreds of miles away and he lived here. My life wasn’t conducive to a long-distance relationship, even if Connor wanted one.

I pulled back from the kiss. “I’d better go. I can feel Elspeth and her coven peering through the curtains.”

“You think they enjoyed the show?”

I laughed, hopping out of the car. “Oh, I know they did.”

Connor came around and handed me my bag. “See you at church, Miranda.”

“Yep, I’ll be the vision in purple. You won’t miss me.”

“No, but I’ll miss you until then.”

Oh, he was smooth. Way too smooth for me.

***

Anne and her friend Lacey were mainlining the sweet wine like it was water.

“You might want to slow down, ladies. You don’t want a hangover for the wedding.”

“Thanks Doc, we’ll take that under advisement,” Lacey said, topping up their glasses. I was having a beer instead and taking it very slowly. I was saving my energy to drink through the reception.

“So, you and Connor?” Anne teased. I was painting her toenails a shade of lilac. Not that anyone would see them in her shoes, but if the bride wanted lilac toes then that’s what she was having. Of course, if the bride would stop wriggling that would help.

“We went for a swim out at his property. Perfect on a hot day.”

“He’s perfect,” swooned Lacey. Lacey was married with three kids and a little sloshed.

“He’s dreamy,” said Anne. “Is he a good kisser? Dave’s a good kisser. You can tell a lot about someone by how they kiss.”

“Yeah, like how much practice they’ve had.” I muttered. Then I remembered I wasn’t allowed to be cynical today. “So tell me about your first kiss with Dave.”

I knew this story and I knew that it would take half an hour. Time enough to paint everyone’s toenails and lay out everyone’s dresses for tomorrow. I was happy for Anne and as I listened to her story about meeting Dave when he came to fix a burst pipe at her place, my hard heart melted a little more. Connor was right. Dave was one of the good guys and Anne was one of the great gals. They were a perfect match. Solid, sweet and caring. It would be a lovely wedding because of that, even if it was going to be like they were getting married in a time capsule.

Lacey worked at the hospital as a receptionist and when Anne went to answer a phone call, she was at me.

“Hey, did you know we need a new doctor at the Base Hospital? Old Doc Johnson is retiring.”

“I didn’t.”

“You could do that job, right?”

“Technically, but I have a job, Lacey, and a life in Sydney.”

She gave me a shrug. “Yeah well your family is all here Miranda. And no offense, but you seem happier than you did when you arrived a few days ago. Maybe coming back would be good for you.”

Maybe. “It’s just because I’m on holiday. It wouldn’t be like that if I was working.”

She shook her head. “I worked at a city hospital before I came to the Bay. It’s stressful here sometimes but it sure is nothing like that. “

“It would feel like a cop out.”

“Did you become a doctor to help people, Miranda, or did you become a doctor to only help city people?”

Well, I became a doctor because I was smart and got the marks and I wanted to prove to my family that I wasn’t like them, some flakey actor, not that I was telling Lacey that, but yes, also to help people.

“Anyway, think about it,” she said. “And don’t think I didn’t notice you avoided the question about kissing Connor either. You can’t do that in Sydney.”

No, you could not, you also couldn’t naked skinny dip. But I did have a life in Sydney and I was not going to alter my whole world for some guy I barely knew. Was I? Except the idea of moving here, living in a beach house and working at the hospital wasn’t horrible. The idea of having some time off and swimming in the morning and attending Elspeth’s wacky yoga classes was actually appealing.

Man, I must be burnt out.

***

The morning of the wedding was a frenzy of hair, makeup, baby’s breath and tulle. Thank goodness no one smoked because with all the hairspray and synthetic in the room, one spark and we’d all have gone up in flames.

Anne was glowing. Yep that was the word, not from the heat like the rest of us but from the sheer joy of the occasion, and that joy was infectious. So by the time we made it to the church, on time of course, I was ready to walk down the aisle with co-ordination, purpose and a genuine smile on my face. What I was not ready for was the sight of Connor all neat and clean and shaven in a tuxedo at the other end of the aisle.

Holy guacamole, that man was hot. I felt my steps falter. And then he flashed me a smile and dear god I actually gasped because breathtaking wasn’t a big enough word. Not even close. But then I just put one foot in front of the other and started walking because there was Dave and it wasn’t about me and my mega-crush. It was about Dave and Anne and their love, which was a palpable thing.

I watched Anne walk down the aisle and she didn’t falter at all, nor did she rush. I had the very distinct impression she was savouring the moment. And yes, she did look like she’d stepped out if the late 20th century, but she made it work so much that I may have even shed a tear or two.

The bride and groom kissed, the crowd cheered and I linked my arm through Connor’s to walk back out into the blistering December sunshine.

“Purple is a good colour on you,” he whispered into my ear in a voice that was far sexier than the dress deserved.

“Thanks. Although this is still the least comfortable dress I’ve ever worn. I can’t wait to take it off,” I said through my plastered-on smile.

“Maybe I can help you with that later.”

If I hadn’t been hot and bothered before, I certainly was now. Heat crept through my body, causing a pink flush to ride up my cheeks. Happy Christmas to me.

***

The reception was at the golf club, which like the rest of Chameleon Bay was waterside. We did the obligatory photos with the beach and the rolling greens behind us and tried to catch a breeze. I didn’t want to be a party-pooper, but as a medical professional, I was seriously concerned about the bridal party getting dehydrated out there. Still, I could tell light headedness and the threat of a fainting spell were worth it to the bride so I tried to drink my champagne slowly and not guzzle. I was here to serve, not pass out.

The golf club itself looked like Christmas had exploded in its foyer. There was a gaudy tree with a thousand gifts under it, all donated by the local community for nearby charity drives. The Christmas music was telling me about mummy making out with Santa under a similar tree, and I wondered if I really would get to make out with Connor in the same location.

“Do you have a Christmas tree?” I asked him.

“Why? Is this song making you horny?”

Yes. I swatted him. “No. Just curious.”

“Yeah, for when my mum visits tomorrow. But if the song is motivating you, I’m happy to show you my tree, Miranda.”

“Seriously?” I turned to him, eyebrows skyward. “That is the worst line ever.”

He just laughed. He really had a great laugh. It was like a low rumble that started deep and worked itself all the way up to the sexy creases beside his eyes. And they were genuine smile lines, unlike my own frown lines. “I know. Sorry I’m about to expire in this suit. I’m off my game.”

Dave, standing next to him, heard that last comment and joined in. “We should be in Hawaiian shirts, not monkey suits.”

“Whatever the bride wants,” Connor said, raising his hand for a fist bump.

Dave lifted his own hand in return. “You know it. Whatever the bride wants.”

They were cute together. Real brothers who had each other’s back. It was sweet.

The bride in question came over and informed us it was time to line up to enter the function room where they would be officially announced as mister and missus for the first time. Before I lined up, I fluffed her skirt for her, as bridesmaids do.

“You look gorgeous,” I said, smiling up at her. And she did. That’s what love did, apparently.

We queued to go in, my arm linked in Connor’s once again. He covered my hand with his, and I felt a weird sense of belonging and safety. It was probably the warm fuzzies the wedding was giving me, the fact that it was Christmas and all my family was here. It definitely couldn’t have been the man himself.

***

If Connor had a theme song for this wedding, it should have been hot potato. Yes, he was my date, but he was passed from woman to woman on the dance floor like one hot potato. I spent a good hour watching from the side of the floor while every woman in town had a dance with him. He was gracious and polite to the ladies in question as he looked at me with pleading eyes. When Dottie from the post office went in for an ass-grab, I intervened.

“You took your sweet time,” he muttered into my hair as Madonna belted out a slow song.

“Somehow you manage when I’m not in town.”

“Yes, by not going anywhere with a dance floor.” I looked up at him and smiled. “I feel violated.”

“Poor baby. I’m here now.”

He tried to rest his head against the side of my face, but my hair was too stiff. “Your hair is like straw.”

“Such a smooth talker,” I chuckled. “There’s about a can of hairspray there working its magic. Although I’m sure glue would have worked as well.”

“You got your speech ready?” he asked.

“I hate public speaking. I’m okay presenting a research paper, but the personal stuff it’s …”

“Too personal?”

“Yeah, smart ass, too personal.”

“You’ll be fine.” He pulled me closer and I let my body melt in to his. When he said it, I almost believed it.

Two hours later, I was shoes off, my feet up on a chair, enjoying a champagne. He was next to me surveying the other stragglers. We’d waved off the bride and groom a while earlier and now we could relax.

“It wasn’t the worst wedding I’ve ever been to,” I conceded.

“True. And yours wasn’t the worst speech I’ve ever heard.”

“But it was probably bottom five.”

He smiled. “Definitely. You somehow took the awkward pause and made it even more awkward, but the love was obvious.”

“Thanks.” I toasted him with my glass.

“How come your parents didn’t fly in?”

My parents certainly could have flown in. They could afford it and it would have been the right thing to do. Anne was their only niece and they hadn’t seen Elspeth in maybe five years.

“Honest answer?”

“Always.”

“They’re selfish. My Dad is a narcissist and I’m not sure what clinical diagnosis to give my mother. It doesn’t matter, really. If it doesn’t work for them, they don’t bother. They think they’re the centre of the universe.”

“That must be hard for you.”

I shrugged. “I suppose it has been. It’s made me independent, resilient, determined to succeed on my own terms.”

“You never wanted to act?”

I gave a chuckle. I had a past and I usually kept it buried. “Actually I did act. I was on the soap opera Bayview for five years from age nine.”

“Really?” So many people didn’t believe me when I told them that. He looked at me closely.

“Yeah, I was little Penny Bannister.”

“Oh my gosh, I remember that character and the drama when they killed her – or you – off.”

If he thought that was a drama, he should have seen what went on behind the scenes. My parents went bat shit crazy when I said I’d leave the show, and when I managed to talk the writers into killing me off so I couldn’t ever return, they went ballistic.

“Yeah, she was beloved by many that Penny. I hated it. I mean, I liked being on the set and truthfully, the cast and crew were like a second family to me, but the acting part was never my bag. I was too self- conscious and then as I hit the awkward teen years …”

“Wow. Wait till I tell my mates I kissed little Penny Bannister.”

“You know that sounds kind of sick, right?” I nudged him.

“Yeah I do.”

Elspeth was twirling around the dance floor. She had excellent form for a woman of her age.

“She’s glad you’re here. She misses you a lot.”

I let out a long sigh. “I know. I need to try harder to visit.”

Lacey walked past on her way out, but called over her shoulder “Don’t forget about that job, honey.”

“Job?”

I shook my head, my straw-like hair scratching my face. “It’s nothing.”

“I bet it’s something.”

“Time to put my fairy grandmother in her carriage and take her home.”

I wasn’t talking about the job with Connor. Connor made me want things: like Connor and small-town life, quiet talks with my grandmother and time to swim naked under waterfalls. Things I shouldn’t want and couldn’t have.

***

Our Christmas Eve was slow to start. I would have stayed in bed longer, but there was a turkey to collect and it was hot as hades. Too hot to sleep, even if I was a little hungover.

Elspeth met me in the kitchen and made us each a bloody Mary while I made us smashed avocado on toast.

“Hair of the dog.” She raised her glass in my direction. “You and Connor looked good together.”

I arched a brow at her and slid her toast across the table. “Seriously? It’s way too early for this conversation.”

“Nonsense. You need to move fast or it might be too late. He’s the biggest catch in town.”

“A town I don’t live in, remember?

“Details.”

“It’s a big detail Elspeth.”

“Poppy-cock. A little birdy told me there was a job open in town that’s perfect for you.”

Damn that little bird. “Not exactly perfect, Elspeth.”

She put her glass on the table and leaned forward bracing herself with two hands. I knew that look. I was about to get a lecture. I took a big sip of my drink. I doubted it would help, but it was all I had.

“Now you listen to me Miranda. In the last few days, you’ve been happier than I’ve seen you in years. I know you don’t want to admit it because you’re not one to admit defeat or heck, even that you’re human half the time, but you’re happy here and you’re not happy in the city, are you?”

I didn’t answer for a beat. “I’m not unhappy.”

“Not the same thing honey. Not even close.” She gave the table a slam for affect. Once an actress always an actress. “I don’t know if it’s the sea-air, having family near or just being out of that terrible hospital full of tragedy or even if it’s Connor, but somehow the combination of all those things makes you happy. It’s not a crime to change your mind.”

I lowered my eyes to the breakfast I’d only half eaten. She was right. I did feel lighter here, more free, more like the me I used to be. But I was on vacation. Would I feel this way if I worked at the local hospital full-time? I asked Elspeth because I had no clue.

“Maybe you just need to try it and see.”

“But what would that even look like?”

“It would look like you smiling back at yourself in the mirror each day.”

Well, when she put it like that …

Eight hours later, as I sweltered in her un-air-conditioned home beside a stove that was roasting a turkey, I was not smiling. I was an over-heated mess. Hot and sweaty and not very attractive in my tank top and short shorts, with my hair piled on my head. A river of sweat ran between my breasts and headed south. I was the least attractive I’d ever been, so naturally Connor, mister tall, dark and perfect, appeared at the door.

“Merry Christmas.” He looked like a cool drink of water, in a crisp white linen shirt and a pair of red and white checked shorts. He was holding a bottle of wine and a bag of gifts. I was barely holding it together.

“Hi.” I wiped a trickle of sweat from my brow. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Elspeth didn’t tell you my mother and I were coming to dinner?”

“Elspeth keeps me on a need to know basis, it seems.” I shook my head. The woman herself came up the path to the back door pushing an elegant woman in a wheelchair. Connor’s mother no doubt. She had his smile and she was laughing at something Elspeth said.

Ten minutes later, the introductions were made and the champagne was popped.

“Aren’t you planning on changing darling?” Elspeth asked.

“Of course.” I gave her a thin smile. What I had been planning was a quick swim, but that was no longer an option. “I’ll be right back.”

I took my champagne and headed down the hall to my room.

I shut the door and turned towards the cupboard when I heard a sound, a small sound, and discovered Connor standing behind me.

“Let me help you.”

“I’m hot and sweaty…”

“I can work with that.” He kissed the back of my neck and unzipped my dress.

“Connor there are people here … we can’t.”

He kissed his way down my spine following the path of the zipper. “We probably shouldn’t, but we definitely can.”

The dress pooled at my ankles and I was in nothing but my bra and knickers.

“We definitely shouldn’t.” My voice was not exactly convincing.

“I heard a rumour you were staying.” He kissed his way back up.

“It’s just a rumour,” I replied on a sigh. “I can’t …”

“Again, you can…”

I turned to face him. “Let’s just have a nice Christmas, Connor.”

His faced searched mine. It was clear he had more he wanted to say. He looked over my shoulder at the two dresses I had laid out on the bed. “Go with the red. It reminds me of you in that bikini.”

And then he was gone and I was alone in my knickers, hot, bothered and really longing for more.

I sat down on the side of my bed and let out a sigh. Was it ridiculous to even contemplate upending my life? On the one hand it seemed like people wanted me here, and I was welcome, which was a stark contrast to my city. On the other …

I picked up the phone and called Cassie.

“Merry Christmas, Miranda.” She almost sang to me down the phone.

“Merry Christmas, Cass. Having fun?” ‘”Yeah honestly so far this is my best Christmas ever since my folks died.”

“That’s so great.” I was really happy for her. If anyone deserved a Merry Christmas it was Cass.

“Yeah, what about you? The wedding pictures you texted me were gorgeous. And your date was smoking hot.”

“Yep, he’s hot, the weather’s hot and I’m a hot, confused mess. “

“Spill.”

I sat down on the bed in my underwear and did just that, sipping my champagne as if we were side by side having a chat.

I told her about my grandmother and the job and Connor. But I also told her that maybe my job in the city hadn’t been going so well lately, a fact I hadn’t shared with anyone else.

“Oh honey, why didn’t you tell me? Have I had my head up my butt since I fell for Matt?”

“Little bit,” I laughed. “Mainly I was embarrassed. I mean my job is my whole life so if I suck at that …”

“You don’t suck.” Her voice was soothing. “You’re burnt out. You work too hard and you need more in your life than work. Everyone does.”

“So what should I do?”

“What does your gut tell you?”

“My gut says maybe I’ve been chasing the wrong dream, running from the wrong things.”

“Maybe you just have a different dream now. Maybe you’ve ticked big city ER doctor off the list already and it’s time for something new.”

“It seems crazy.”

“Maybe, like you, it’s crazy smart.”

My stomach was churning at the thought of re-routing my life. “What if it’s a mistake?”

“What if it’s not?”

“So you’re saying put on the red dress, kiss the guy and take a leap of faith?”

“Yep, that’s exactly what I’m saying, but you can do those things one at a time you know.”

Okay first step, first.

***

By the time I emerged, my aunt and uncle had arrived as well, so we were an intimate group of six.

Elspeth had a Christmas tradition where we all had to take a turn saying what we’re most happy about or proud of since last Christmas. Since we don’t have Thanksgiving in Australia, it was her own borrowed tradition.

As usual she went first. She was most happy that Anne and Dave had tied the knot and that I was home for Christmas.

“And I’m most proud that I’m still kicking. That’s no mean feat at my age.”

“I’m not exactly kicking much these days,” Connor’s mother quipped. “But I am still here with a smile on my face and I’m proud of that.”

Connor went next. “I’m proud I had the courage to know that it was time to make some changes and up-end my whole life.” He turned then and gave me a pointed look. “It was a risk, but it was one worth taking.”

I gave him a hard stare and he gave me a wink in reply. He was sitting directly opposite me, playing footsies with me under the table.

My turn. I looked at the smiling, supportive faces at the table. I looked at the angel on the tree and the twinkling lights and I felt something I hadn’t felt for a long time. I felt at home. And I felt the beginnings of tears pooling in my eyes. In that moment I made a decision to stay.

“I don’t know what I’m most proud of this year … I have a feeling it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s about to.” And then I gave Connor a wink of my own. I didn’t know if I was making the right decision, but I did know that I was back in Chameleon Bay and ready to take the leap.

***

All I Want For Christmas Is…? Is a short story that spins off from my novel Hearts Afire where we first meet Miranda and her friend Cassie.

About the Author

I am an Australian author who writes contemporary women’s fiction, including chick lit and romance. When I began to write again, I noticed a trend – writing dark unhappy stories made me unhappy. So I made a decision to write a novel with a happy ending and I have been writing happy stories ever since.

I am the author of five standalone novels, including Mr. Right and Other Mongrels and Hearts Afire and the Upper Crust Series. Many of my novels focus on Australian characters meeting and visiting US characters.

I have been a member of the writing group The Writer’s Dozen for ten years. Our anthology Better Than Chocolate raised over $10,000 for the charity Room to Read and helped build a library in South East Asia. I am also a member of the Romance Writers of Australia. In 2015, I had a piece on writing chick lit featured in the successful Australian non-fiction book Copyfight.

  • @MoniqueMcDonell
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www.moniquemcdonellauthor.com/index.html

Christmas Cookies

Vivian Brooks

“Her boob popped out.”

“What do you mean?”

“It popped out! From her jumper! The one she wore the other day with all those prints of Christmas trees? It happened when she was in the elevator, with Perry!”

I pretend not to feel my heart jitter at the thought of Perry in the elevator with her and instead focus on Jocelyn as she motions with her hands at her chest, complete with cupping and squeezing. I have to let out a roar of laughter. “No way!”

“Yes way!”

I shake my head, my arms coming over my sweater vest as we ride the elevator to the sixth floor together. Next to me Jocelyn finishes smirking and lets out a breath, “So how’s it going with the evil twins anyway?”

“They’re horrible. Even though they’re clear across the floor, I can hear them every single second. Gossiping and laughing, and eating really loudly.”

“I don’t even know why they were hired,” Jocelyn grumbles, running a hand through her long black hair. Her thick framed glasses slide down her nose a bit and she pushes them back up.

“They were hired because her Instagram account has over a million followers,” I remind my friend. “And he was the one who got her the million followers by plugging her on his YouTube channel.”

Jocelyn just shrugs. “So what? That doesn’t give them any experience in writing.”

The elevator pings and we both give the doors our attention as they open for us.

“Do you want to get drinks after work?” Jocelyn asks as I walk off the elevator.

“No, I can’t. I have to go see my grandma.”

“Tell her I say hi,” Jocelyn reaches over and pushes the close button inside the elevator and I give her a nod as the doors shut between us.

Jocelyn is the only person at Fantasy Horizon that I get along with, other than Perry. She works a floor above me in Customer Relations and manages the entire floor. Though the job is tedious, it pays well and it’s why she never has the desire to leave it. I, on the other hand, work on the fourth floor in the e-commerce department. Half the time I’m not even sure what my job is. I usually work on our websites sale section with Design Promotions, but lately I have been working with Perry in Digital Marketing.

E-commerce takes up the entire floor, and a few months ago our CEO, Sam Kepler, had the entire floor redesigned. He took away our cubicles and left us with metal desks, long enough to house at least two or three computers upon them. Now plastic walls divide us from each other, and are clear enough to see right through. Round green neon lights hang from the ceiling throughout the room, and the dark walls had been painted stark white.

This month, there are glittery snowflakes hanging from the ceiling and people have decorated their plastic walls with Christmas decals.

I make my way towards my desk on the left side of the room, passing the desks of Digital Marketing and noticing that Perry’s desk is cluttered with several delivered parcels of various sizes.

My desk is against the far wall, and I snagged that desk on purpose. When I sit in my chair I can see everyone before me, and there is nobody behind me but the wall. I have one of the plastic walls against the backside of my desk, and I like it. I’m able to spy on everyone without having to peer over it like my old cubicle.

There is nothing special about my work area, I have a white work laptop and file folders neatly piled on the desk. I have a small potted plant on the corner, and my Christmas décor consists of a small plastic Christmas tree I picked up from a store in the mall last week.

I notice a small package on my desk, brought in from the carrier with a label that says Overnight Delivery on the side.

I sit down in my wheely chair and pull the package towards me. There is no return address and as I begin to tear the corners of it open, a sweet aroma invades my work station. I can definitely smell chocolate, and the richness of cinnamon. Even though I just had lunch with Jocelyn, my mouth begins to water.

Once I have the package open, I find myself looking at a very familiar round tin that is green and has imprints of reindeer upon it. I smile, opening the tin and am greeted with dozens of Christmas cookies, nestled upon wax paper.

There are chocolate ones shaped like Christmas trees with green and white frosting, and star shaped ones with yellow frosting and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

“How come your cubicle smells so good, Kinsley?”

I look up from my gift to find Perry standing over my desk. He’s in a blue sweater; it’s pressed against the plastic wall as he leans into it, and a pair of faded jeans. His thick brown hair falls over his forehead. His dark brown eyes look to the tin, then back to my face, and he smiles. It’s a half smile, kind of crooked but always warm. Over the last few months, the more and more I see it, the more I feel my insides quiver timidly.

“Christmas cookies, from my grandma,” I lift the tin to offer him one and he reaches over the plastic wall to take one. “She sends them to me every year, even though we live ten minutes from each other now. She says her cookies bring people into the Christmas spirit.”

Perry bites into the star cookie he chose and nods. “This may be the best cookie I have ever tasted.”

“I know, right?” I set the tin back down and push it away from me. If I don’t, I’ll be tempted to eat the whole tin within fifteen minutes.

“Oh,” Perry points down at me as he finishes chewing. “Got my grandpa into the nursing home.”

“Really?” I smile back at him, “I thought there was a wait list?”

“Your grandma gave us a good reference, Mom was over the moon,” Perry tells me. “It’s a really nice place. Thanks for getting us the interview and stuff.”

“No problem,” I shrug, “I figured anything was better than him staying longer at your Mom’s.”

A few months ago Perry told me his grandfather moved in with his mother, after being kicked out of his retirement home. Within a few weeks he was driving Perry’s mother up the wall and Perry had stepped in to take him off her hands every few days. It was my idea for them to try Morningside Villa, the retirement home that my grandmother has been living in for the last two years.

“Hell-o, all!”

I watch Sierra Social pop up next to Perry. I still don’t know her last name, and neither does Jocelyn, so we came up with Sierra Social. Today her long blond hair is pulled back in a sleek ponytail, and she wears a black dress way too short for the office. As she turns on her side, to fully face Perry, I notice that there is no back to her dress.

My mouth gapes for a second.

How is she allowed to wear that in the office?

“So, did you guys get my email?”

“I just got back from lunch,” I answer as I pull my laptop towards me. It looks like she doesn’t hear me because instead she taps Perry’s arm with her long bright red finger nail.

“You guys should answer it ASAP; it’s about the Christmas party next week, Secret Santa and such.” She begins playing with her hair and draping it over her breasts in what I assume is an attempt to seduce Perry.

“Awesome sauce.” Perry pops the rest of the cookie in his mouth and gives her a smile as he pushes himself away from my desk. “I will check it out.”

Part of me hopes she trails after him, but then the other part hopes she stays put, even if it means I have to converse with her.

Once he’s gone, and I assume out of her view, Sierra spins around. She’s still playing with her hair as she looks at me. “So, like, is he single or what?”

I open my mouth to answer her but nothing comes out at first. When I first met Perry two years ago, I rarely thought of him as anything but a work colleague. It went that way until a few months ago when Sam had me work with Perry on the emails and newsletters. After working one-on-one with him at least once a week, I started to see what all the other women in the office saw.

He is sweet, funny, and endearingly dorky.

Though he may not be on the same level as Sam, who could be People’s Sexiest Man of the Year, Perry has a warmth and charm that Sam lacks.

I’m not deluding myself that he would ever be interested in me, especially when a woman who looks like Sierra wants him, and especially after seeing pictures of his recent ex-girlfriend. He has a thing for breath-taking blondes, it seems. Tall, exciting blondes with bronzed, smooth legs and full lips. I am the opposite; I have short legs, that are pastier than anything, and shoulder length layered black hair. I recently got bangs which I now regret. My lips are thin and sometimes annoying to put lip gloss on. I am far from exciting. I’m quiet, shy and not one for any type of confrontation.

“Um, not sure,” I finally answer her as I give my computer screen my attention, hoping she takes the hint and goes back to her evil twin, Michael Wallace, across the room.

“So cute your grandma sends you cookies.” She sighs, looking up from the tin and throwing me a tight smile before she finally backs away from my area.

I won’t let her condescending tone ruin my day.

***

It’s the next morning, and when I get into work I find Jocelyn at my desk. Her floor has already pulled their names from their hats and she has lucked out in picking out her secretary’s name. Somebody she gets along with well.

“It’s so much more festive on your floor than mine,” Jocelyn steps up next to me, and together we lean against the plastic wall at my desk. “We have a white tree in the corner with a gold star. That’s it.”

“Did your grandma give you anymore cookies?” Jocelyn then asks.

I shake my head. “No, but she’s sending you some.”

Jocelyn’s mouth bursts into a grin. “Sweet.” She plays with the ends of her dark hair, and gives me a hard look. “Did you ask Perry out yet?”

My mouth drops open just a little as I digest her words.

“How did—How did you know—”

“Please.” She throws a hand up at me, “Kinsley. We’ve been friends for two years now. I know you like him, even if you think you’re exceptionally good at hiding it.”

“I thought I was,” I look down at the floor, covering my face with both hands.

“You are,” she practically laughs, and I feel her hands wrap around my wrists. She pulls my hands from my face and smiles at me. “Honestly, you are. I mean I had some suspicion but it wasn’t until I mentioned Sierra’s boob popping out in front of him that I saw it on your face.”

I groan, and she lets go of my wrists.

“Don’t worry; I won’t say anything to anyone but, Kinsley? You should ask him out. He’s a nice guy.”

I can’t help but let out a sarcastic laugh. “Sierra is into him, and I’m pretty sure he’s into her.”

Jocelyn makes a gagging sound and I smile, looking away from her.

I notice the evil twins heading our direction and gasp.

Next to me, Jocelyn whispers a curse word I can’t really make out.

Sierra and Michael Wallace, her evil twin who works on the blog with her, are in full costume. He’s in a bright green elf’s uniform, complete with a red sleeping hat, and shoes with bells. His dark hair is gelled neatly to the side and his contoured make up is as usual, perfect. He follows Sierra like a loyal lapdog, handing out candy canes to the employees they stop at.

Sierra is in a Mrs. Claus costume. The skirt ends high above her knee, her legs are draped in knee-high strip socks and her boots are at least five inches off the ground. Her shirt cuts off at the shoulders, and a low v-cut up front holds little to the imagination when it comes to her breasts.

“Okay, that is so inappropriate!” I hiss at Jocelyn.

“I don’t know how she gets away with the things she puts on her body,” Jocelyn shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “HR is a joke here.”

We watch as she and Michael reach Digital Marketing. Both Jocelyn and I get on our toes. Sierra pushes the Santa hat in her hands out at Perry. I watch, almost too eagerly, as he reaches inside. He’s dressed in jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt today. His hair falls over his forehead as he unfolds the slip of paper in his hands and nods.

Sierra leans forward and whispers something to him. I watch him smile, and I fall off my toes onto my heel. As she squeezes his arm, I look away and pretend to focus on the hem of my plaid skirt.

“You really should just ask him out,” Jocelyn whispers when she sees my expression.

“I’m not his type.”

Jocelyn shakes her head at me but remains silent, only because the evil twins are making a beeline towards my work area. Once they stop in front of me, Sierra thrusts the hat my way and gives me a smug smile. Next to her, Michael is spinning the hook part of a candy cane around his index finger, clearly bored.

I reach inside of the hat, feeling around and noticing instantly that there is only one slip of paper for me to take. As I pull it out, Sierra gives Jocelyn a smile before looking back at me.

“So Ken, think I could pick your brain later on today about something?”

“It’s Kinsley,” Jocelyn corrects, frowning at her.

“Yeah I know,” Sierra smirks, exchanging a look with Michael, who shares her goofy grin. “I was using a nickname.”

“What did you want to talk about?” I ask Sierra quickly, deciding it is better to jump in before Jocelyn snaps at her.

“Oh, I need some ideas,” Sierra steps closer to me, whipping her long blond hair over her shoulder. I can smell her perfume, sickly sweet, wafting from her neckline as she leans into my left ear to whisper. “I have Perry for Secret Santa and am at a complete loss.”

I feel my hands ball into fists and my heart caves within me a little bit.

I pray the smile I force over my face hides my agony from her. “Sure, I can help with that.”

“Peaches!” She squeezes her nails into my arm with a grin too wide for my liking and then bids us farewell. Michael follows behind her and after giving me a once over, over his shoulder, he says something to Sierra and they burst out laughing.

“We exchange gifts Tuesday folks!” Sierra screams out to the room as her laughter with Michael fades.

“What did she want?” Jocelyn asks me as I turn and walk around to my desk. My legs feel heavy beneath me and when I finally plop down on my chair, I’m relieved that I’m off them.

“Nothing. Work thing,” I lie.

I don’t know why I lied to Jocelyn, maybe it was to save face, or maybe it was because I didn’t want her to realize just how much I do like Perry. Right now she thinks it’s just a small crush, and it’s better it stays that way.

Realizing I still haven’t checked who my Secret Santa is, I unfold the paper in my hands, and groan loudly as I show Jocelyn who I have. She lets out a grunt and sighs.

Michael Wallace.

***

“Let’s move the clip for the pre-order sale for Guardians of the Mountain to the left. That way we can put the award ribbons right there alongside of it, so it catches everyone’s eye.”

By two o’clock, I’ve found myself working alongside Perry at his desk. We sit close, elbows grazing every few seconds as we look from his computer screen to my notes on the yellow notepad.

I watch him move the mouse cursor across the screen, dragging the images along with them and starting to position them like I suggested.

“Forgot to tell you, I think your grandmother’s cookies worked,” Perry suddenly says giving me a quick look. “After I ate one, I couldn’t get I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus out of my head the entire day.”

I let out a small giggle, instantly feeling my cheeks redden as he focuses his dark eyes on me. I have to look back at the computer screen until he whispers to me,

“So, did you get someone good for Secret Santa?”

“Did you?” I counter, looking from the screen to him.

His nose crinkles and he shakes his head when a few strands of hair fall over his eyes. “Nah, I got Vince, my supervisor. I already get him a gift every year for Christmas so now he’s going to get two from me, or a really big one.”

I smile and look back at his work on the screen. “I got someone lame too, but I think they’d like a Starbucks gift card, maybe…”

“Yikes,” Perry’s voice gets high and he makes a face at me. “A Starbucks gift card, the go-to gift you give someone you don’t know, or like.”

“That’s not true,” I stifle a laugh but the smile spreads over my face. “Lots of people love Starbucks gift cards.”

“Unless someone specifically asks for one, it’s the go to gift card,” Perry motions with his free hand, his humorous tone alive. “Nobody ever turns down a Starbucks gift card, that’s why people get it for people they don’t really know.”

“That’s absurd! I’m sure there are other gift cards people get for someone they don’t know.”

“Nope,” Perry answers quickly. “It’s always Starbucks, but you should just agree to disagree on me with this one.”

I narrow my eyes at him and watch his eyes twinkle at his own jousting. I elbow him in the side and shake my head. “You think you’re so funny.”

“I was voted most likely to be a stand-up comedian in high school,” he tells me, a comical tone of arrogance coming over him, “so yes, I do think I’m quite funny. Probably the funniest, if I’m being honest.”

I laugh and look down at the notes between us.

My hands may be sweaty and my skin warm from nerves as I sit close to him, but I like it. I don’t want to get up from my seat and go back to my work station.

“Delivery.”

We both look up and see our mailman, arms stretched over the plastic wall at Perry’s desk. In his hands is a large square box, wrapped up with an Express Shipping label over the sides. Perry thanks him for it, taking it with both hands and then sets it down underneath his desk.

“What’s with all the packages lately?” I ask, remembering what I saw on his desk yesterday.

It takes him a moment to respond as he sits back up and pushes the box further beneath his desk with his foot. “Uh, Christmas presents. I avoid the stores during the holidays.”

I narrow my eyes at him again, and he lifts his eyebrows high, shrugging at the same time. Something in his answer wasn’t genuine and I think about calling him out on his lie.

“Oh hey. Moving my gramps in at Morningside at the end of the week,” Perry tells me, as he pulls himself up against his desk again. “I think he’s more excited to get out of my mom’s house than she is.”

I smile softly. “He’ll like it there.”

Perry reaches for the mouse and begins to move the graphics across the page again.

***

By the time Friday hits, I am more than relieved. Next Friday is Christmas, which means after this weekend we have only two days of work until we all get two weeks off for Christmas and New Year’s.

Then I remember we have the company Christmas party tomorrow night, and on the e-vite Sierra sent out, it said “Classy Dress Only Please.” I can only guess what she will be wearing to it. My black mini dress will look like a garbage bag compared to her outfit, I’m sure.

Upon leaving work Friday afternoon, Sierra cornered me at my desk and kept me hostage for thirty minutes. She has done it for the last two days, ever since we pulled names. She sat on my desk, her long smooth legs swaying back and forth in front of me, because she was in another short red skirt. As if she was bragging about them.

“I kind of want, like, I know I want it to be a cute gift, but not cheesy. Like, cute and romantic and really, really fun,” she kept telling me. “Maybe I want it to be a little bit sexy? I don’t know…We flirt all the time. \He makes fun of my Insta account, and I make fun of his love for board games…”

It was the worst thirty minutes of my life. Not because talking to her brought my IQ down, but because today she has confirmed my fears.

Perry does like her, and that the smile I saw on his face when she came to my desk earlier in the week was genuine.

How could Perry like her? What is it about her, other than her obvious looks, that draws him to her? Could I stand to be a little bit more like Sierra?

The thought alone has me shudder in terror.

Suffice it to say, I’m in a mood again when I get to Morningside to see my grandma. After saying hi to the nursing staff, and noticing that they had a platter of Grandma’s freshly baked cookies at their station, I make my way to her room. It’s empty, and after throwing my coat and purse on her made-up bed, I leave in search for her.

A few rooms down from her room is the kitchen so I decide to check there first.

I am not five feet from the door when I hear someone give out a grumbly shout. Then comes a loud wooden bang that has me jump.

“Get out of here before I whack you like a male dog!”

I know that voice.

I unglue myself from my place and rush into the kitchen. The shared kitchen is small, made only for the residents to cook their own meals if they choose. The dining hall is across the hall, and they have their own cafeteria for the residents who choose not to cook.

One side of the wall is all pale counters with generic pink countertops. I see a cutting board, a bag of flour, a carton of eggs and a half used bag of sugar positioned carefully onto it. A used rolling pin rests against the floured up cutting board, and my grandmother stands in front of it with an even larger rolling pin.

She has it high over her hair, her apron stained with colored icing and flour. Standing just a foot in front of her is an elderly gentleman I have never seen before. He is well over six feet, with gracious wrinkles over his oval face, and bushy grey eyebrows. His hair, the color of my grandma’s flour, is parted elegantly to the side.

“Easy there now, sugar lips.” He has both hands out in front of him, and if I had to guess, a Jersey accent. “I was just curious.”

“Grandma!” I hurry over to her and grab the heavy rolling pin from her hands.

Immediately my grandmother glares at me, strands of her greying hair coming undone from her usual bun. “He was being all handsy with my cookies!”

The man chuckles behind me; it’s a loud, deep laugh that echoes around the small room. I find myself trying not to laugh at how grandma’s statement could be misconstrued.

“You don’t hit him with a rolling pin,” I tell her, holding it firmly in both hands now.

“He deserved it,” my grandmother throws a finger at him. “I’d be careful if I was you, or you may just end up with a laxative in your morning coffee!”

“Grandma!” I grab her arm firmly and give her a look before I turn to the man. “She didn’t mean that.”

Again, the man laughs. His smile is unexpectedly sincere, two dimples surfacing at the corner of his mouth as he nods at me. “I’ve been threatened with worse. Don’t you worry young lady.”

“You’re not even here an hour, and already causing a problem, Dad?”

I look over at the door to see a tall, slender woman with curly brown hair leaning against the doorframe. She’s in a long grey sweater and black pants, her face full of exhaustion and it shows from the way her eyebrows have raised in annoyance. Her dark eyes strike me though, and I can’t help but stare at them a tad longer than I should. Something about them is familiar and comfortable.

“No, he’s not,” I say to her, shoving the rolling pin at my grandma. She takes it with a mumble. “He was just admiring my grandmother’s baking.”

“Smells lovely,” the woman nods, pushing up from the doorframe. “I could smell it all the way down the hall.”

“Every year I make Christmas cookies.” My grandmother leaves my side and crosses the room. She throws a glare at the woman’s father as she passes him. When she reaches the stove behind him; she picks up the baking sheet full of cookies. She extends them outward and motions for the woman to take one. “Fresh from the oven.”

“Thank you.” The woman smiles as she looks down and chooses one of the nearest, brightest, star cookies. She bites into it quickly and makes a hmmm sound at its taste. “So, what was my Dad doing to you?”

“He was getting at my cookies, without being asked.” My grandmother straightens herself up, still gripping the baking sheet in her hands. “And then he was being rather inappropriate.”

The woman swallows the cookie and narrows her big eyes at her father. “Dad, are you kidding me? Again?”

“What can I say?” He shrugs his shoulders and nudges me in the side with his elbow. “I can’t control myself when there’s a pretty lady around.”

“[_This _]pretty lady,” my grandma turns her head at him, “is not interested.” The man winks anyway, and when I see my grandma bare her teeth, I make my move.

“Okay, Grandma.” I walk towards her, “let’s take the cookies into the dining room now.”

“I have to put them on a plate.” She pulls away from my grasp and heads back to the oven.

We hear footsteps at the door and turn around to face our new visitor.

Standing in a grey ski jacket, with a pair of black gloves in his hands and his hair blown wildly to the side from the winter air, is Perry. He looks from the woman in the room to me, to the old man, back to me.

For a moment I’m confused as to why he’s here.

“Kinsley,” he says, producing a smile. “I see you’ve met my mom and grandfather.”

“This—this is your grandfather?” I motion at the older man behind me, who I’ve seen has wandered back towards my grandmother and the oven.

“You two know each other?” Perry’s mother finishes the cookie quickly and looks from me to her son.

“We work together,” Perry answers. “Kinsley was the one who gave us the referral for Morningside, and her grandmother got us the interview.”

“Oh, that was you.” His mother turns to me with a smile. “Well I should thank you both. This really is a nice retirement community.” She side-eyes her father. “I only hope he behaves himself so he doesn’t get kicked out.”

“You beast!”

We turn around to see my grandmother slap Perry’s grandfather in the hand before turning her back on him, holding the cookies on a large white porcelain plate. She adjusts her posture and gives us all a nod as she leaves the room, cookies in hand.

“Dad,” Perry’s mother moans loudly at him, “please, behave yourself here.”

He lifts up his hand, one of the Christmas tree cookies in it. We watch him bite into it. “No promises.”

“I better go after my grandma,” I say, motioning at the door where Perry stands. “It was nice to meet you all.”

As Perry’s mother approaches her father, she begins to lecture him in a low voice. I reach Perry who moves out of my way. We smile at each other as I pass through.

“See you at the Christmas party tomorrow,” he calls out behind me.

“Yup, see you there!”

Why am I so awkward?

***

The Christmas party starts promptly at seven o’clock, downstairs in the main lobby of the skyscraper at Fantasy Horizons. The glass walls are covered with dense sheets so that nobody passing the building outside can see the staff over-indulging on drinks and food. The two main Christmas trees are lit up for the night, and there is fake snow scattered throughout the room. Remixed Christmas music plays from the speakers above us, and waiters walk around with trays of drinks and appetizers.

I stand near the front desk with Jocelyn, watching everybody get in the swing of things. The front desk is littered with desserts people brought from home including brownies, Jell-o shots, and fudge. A tray of my grandmother’s cookies sits near us, already half gone and the only thing touched from the table.

Sierra stands out like a sore thumb, in a mini-sequined green number which has an exceptionally low v-cut in the front and back. Her hair is blown out, and cascading down her tanned shoulders like a waterfall. She has already captured the attention of most of the men we work with. Loyal Michael Wallace stands next to her, in a smart grey ironic tuxedo, looking bored out of his mind as he checks his nail beds.

“She looks ridiculous,” Jocelyn scoffs as she takes a drink of her wine. “I mean, if one thread of that tacky dress were to unravel, then she’d be standing there naked. Butt naked, because I bet you any money she’s got nothing on underneath.”

I tug at the bottom of my black mini dress, which I paired with thick green tights and ankle boots. It is a simple dress, with a modest v-cut and a low back. I left my hair down but curled the ends so it bobs up against my chin nicely.

Next to Sierra, I look like a nun.

“So, are we making any headway with Mr. Perry?” Jocelyn turns to ask me. A mischievous grin comes over her face as her glasses tip down her nose.

“No, please. You know me.” I roll my eyes at her as I take a quick drink of my rum and Coke. “He doesn’t even know I exist.”

“You’ve been working together every week for the last eight weeks,” Jocelyn sighs. “Trust me, he knows.”

“I mean he doesn’t have the slightest clue I am into him.”

“And whose fault is that?” Jocelyn quickly counters.

I say nothing as we both look over at him. He’s standing against one of the Christmas trees, a few other members of his team standing with him. He’s in a dark suit with a red tie with reindeer scattered throughout. He has a bottle of beer in his hand and is gesturing passionately at the man next to him.

“Go over and make casual conversation.” Jocelyn puts a hand on my back and pushes me forward. “Compliment his tie, or better yet, make fun of it.”

I’m hesitant, despite her pushing me forward. After a sigh, I hear Jocelyn say behind me, “Alright. I’ll come with you.”

We barely take a step before Sierra intrudes on the conversation Perry is having with his team members. She swings a hand around Perry’s waist and steps on her toes in her knee high boots, kicking her heel in the air as if she’s in a 1950’s romance film. She has a hand stretched out over Perry’s head and in it, she wiggles mistletoe.

My can feel my stomach turning, and my heart thuds so hard that it’s all I hear. I swallow hard as I watch Sierra lean over and press her red lips against Perry’s. The people around them laugh and cheer and I have to look down at my feet for a moment.

I make myself spin around and I can see Jocelyn’s twisted face. She opens her mouth to speak but I’m quicker.

“It’s fine, really.” My voice shakes a little as I walk back towards the front desk. “I’m not his type, and it’s just a crush.”

Jocelyn watches me set down my drink, “But what if it’s not—”

“I think I’m going to head home now.” I look at her slowly and shrug.

The plus side with Jocelyn knowing about my feelings towards Perry is that I don’t have to hide my disappointment anymore. I can wear it out like a nice pair of earrings.

I can hear Sierra’s booming laughter behind me, and I have to force myself not to look over my shoulder.

“I’ll see you Monday, okay?”

Jocelyn takes a breath but after a second she just smiles. “Do you want to take home the rest of your Christmas cookies?”

“No.” I shake my head as I take a step back from her. “Let everyone else enjoy them.”

***

I spend Sunday blissfully alone, watching reruns of old sitcoms on television, a marathon of their best Christmas episodes. It is one episode of Beverly Hills 90210 that has me decide, after the holidays, I will start getting over a man who barely knew I existed.

When I go into work Monday, the floor is abuzz with what happened after I left the Christmas party. A few coworkers became too drunk to function and passed out on the fake snow, Michael Wallace outed a co-worker accidentally but on purpose, and Sierra danced on top of the front desk.

I manage to avoid almost everyone that day, throwing myself into approving our last few products for the Boxing Day sale on the site. I don’t see Perry or Jocelyn all day, and the few times I do happen to peer over my plastic wall towards Perry’s desk, I notice it is always empty.

On Tuesday morning I’m mindlessly clicking away on color changes for the sale banner when someone throws down my plastic tray that I had placed Christmas cookies on for the party. I remove my hand from the mouse, blow a few pieces of my bangs from my eyes and look up slowly.

At first I’m not sure who I’m looking up at. The woman definitely looks like Sierra but, it has to be her twin. Her long glistening hair is pulled back into a severe bun, and she’s in a pair of slacks with a matching black blazer. There is absolutely no skin showing but the nape of her neck and she has a bold red statement necklace draped over it. It looks like there is barely any make-up on her face.

“Sierra?”

“Those cookies you brought to the party?” Her tone is sharp and unmoving. “They had me on the toilet all Sunday.”

I make a face at her as I touch the tray, trying hard not to smile at the image of her stuck in her bathroom. “Are you sure it was my grandmother’s cookies and not a hangover?”

She draws a breath through her teeth and raises a finger at me, “I do not get hung over. I have greens every day, and I diffuse my oils every morning.”

“Ohhh…”

“Michael loved your gift by the way. He’s so into Starbucks it’s not even funny.” Her voice barely hits a note as she lets out a jaded breath. “Anyway, laters.”

She turns and leaves me.

The small interaction has me in a great mood all day so by the time I get to Morningside Villa for the Resident Christmas Dinner I know my grandmother will be pleased that I am out of my sour mood.

She is already in the Dining Hall, behind one of the long tables covered with green table clothes. She’s saved me a seat next to her, and good thing, because other than two seats across from her, it is one of the only seats at that table left. The room is bustling with families, and the energy is lovely.

There is a Christmas tree in every corner of the room. Red and green tulle come across the ceiling towards the big chandelier in the middle.

It smells divine; warm, toasty turkey is about to be served. Each table has bowls of cranberry sauce already placed on it and you can smell its sweetness. My mouth is starting to water as I reach my Grandma’s table. There is a buffet table near the cafeteria kitchen that has a line a mile long, but I can see salads and fruit dishes.

“Hi Grandma,” I greet her. I bend down and give her light kiss on the forehead. She smells like her cookies, all sugary and syrupy. Her hair is up in its bun but she has fake red flowers woven through it. She’s in a green sweater, a Santa Claus pin over her heart, and a set of pearls. “You look nice.”

“You didn’t bring anybody?” she asks as I take a seat next to her. I throw her a smile as I unbutton my coat.

“I told you I wouldn’t be.”

“How can both you lovely ladies be single?”

I throw my pea coat over the back of my wooden chair and look across the table to find Perry’s grandfather sitting right across from my grandmother. He’s ever so silly in his green knitted Christmas sweater with the face of an elf on it. He winks at me and I can’t help but smirk.

“Just ignore him.” My grandmother waves her hand in front of my face. “He’s a nuisance.”

“Name’s William, by the way.”

He extends his hand and I take it as my grandmother exhales with annoyance. His shake is warm and firm and as we pull apart, I notice he’s alone.

To that I’m eternally grateful.

I don’t think I can see Perry after my pow-wow Sunday, my vow to get over him and find someone new.

“Nice to officially meet you,” I say to him as I take back my hand. “Hope you’re enjoying yourself so far.”

“It’s interesting,” William answers with a chuckle, “to say the least.”

“He thinks he can charm his way into the nurses’ good graces,” my grandmother leans over to tell me. “But they see right through him. Just like I do.”

I can’t help but laugh as I look down at my empty white plate. There’s a basket of fresh baked buns in front of me and the smell is making me drool a little. I go to reach for one but someone beats me to the basket first.

“Brains before beauty don’t you think?”

I try not to nervously smile at the sound of Perry’s voice and instead, just look up as he takes a seat next to his grandfather. In one hand he has a plate of food from the buffet table. Greek salad over-flows his plate, with extra olives and feta cheese, but that isn’t exactly what catches my eye.

It’s the knitted sweater he wears; exactly like his grandfathers, only red.

I have to laugh and I fail at hiding it behind my hand as I cover my mouth.

“I see.” Perry sighs. There’s a playful undertone to his voice as he raises a single eyebrow at me. “So you’re going to laugh at my sweater just like the cool kids did in high school.”

“No, no,” I manage to control my giggle and clear my throat. “I’m not laughing…”

“I laughed too,” my grandmother boasts loudly and proudly.

There comes an awkward silence over us as Perry digs into his salad. After he takes a bite, he looks up at me. I’m careful not to look into his eyes, afraid he’ll know I’m trying to keep the replay of his and Sierra’s kiss out of my mind. My heart stings just at the thought of it. “So, how was work?”

“Slow,” I shrug, and then remember I haven’t seen him all day. “Were you not in at all?”

“I was…” Perry lifts both hands, fork in between his fingers as he begins to air quote, “sick.”

“Ha,” William lets out a laugh as he slaps his grandson’s back hard. “He wasn’t sick. He was building his game.”

I frown and look back at Perry, who narrows his eyes at his grandfather.

“Remember when I said it was a secret grandpa?” He asks with a sigh, “A secret?”

“You’re building a game?” I wiggle in my seat and lean back into it. “Wait a second; was that what the packages where you kept getting at the office?”

Perry’s eyes scan my face, and its then I see that he and his mother share the same warm, delicate, chocolate color tone. After a second he runs a hand through his thick brown hair, slowly nodding. “Guilty. They were not Christmas gifts.”

“I knew it.” I shake my head at him. “I knew you were lying.”

He goes back to his salad, and I can hear William grumble something at my grandmother, who in turn, begins to bellyache back at him.

“So,” I say as I reach over for one of the bread rolls. It’s warm and practically comes apart in my hands. I tear off a piece and pop it in my mouth. “What’s the game about?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he sighs jokingly.

“I can’t believe you just said that.” I shake my head at him as I chew the soft dough.

“It’s a standard nerdy, role playing game involving giants and trolls, and a queen who can turn people into stone,” he answers casually. “Like Medusa.”

“The standard kind of nerd game,” I repeat as I put another piece of the bun in my mouth. “It’s kind of cool that you made up a whole game.”

Kind of?” he repeats with a sarcastic scoff, “It’s really cool, thank you very much.”

“He has a meeting with investors after Christmas,” William brags with a proud smile. “This game is going to be big.”

“Wow.” I’m impressed and it shows, “That is amazing.”

“Well we don’t know if they’ll even bite,” Perry shrugs, chomping into a forkful of olives. “They were interested in the storyline, but wanted to see a prototype first.”

My grandmother suddenly hits my side with her elbow and I make a hissing sound as I glare at her. She motions at the doorway,

“My cookies! I left them in the kitchen. You two go get them. Hurry, people will be asking where they are.”

“I can get them myself,” I say pushing my chair back.

“Be a gentleman,” William harks at Perry but I notice Perry is already getting to his feet.

We leave the dining room together, Perry leading the way across the hall to the kitchen.

When we get to the kitchen, we notice the Christmas cookies right away, on four baking pans, cooling. We walk over to the stove and Perry reaches for one of the white trays my grandmother has waiting.

Our shoulders touch as we begin to set the cookies upon the first tray slowly and I’m trying to calm my stupid racing heart. His aftershave is light and fresh, a hint of peppermint that I think is perfect for the Christmas season.

“Hey, do me a favor?” Perry looks down at me. “Keep this under wraps from people at work? Technically, what I’m doing could get me fired. Pitching to investors not related to Fantasy Horizons.”

I smile as I look down at the cookies. “I’ll be quiet.”

He pops a cookie into his mouth and sighs happily. After he swallows it he speaks. “Best cookies ever.”

I reach down for one myself, a star one, and bite into its sweetness. I fail at containing my pleasure at its taste, letting out an “Mmmm” before I finish it.

“Your girlfriend doesn’t seem to think so,” I say to Perry after I swallow the last bit.

Next to me, he takes half a step back and I look up to see him frowning. “My girlfriend?”

“Sorry.” My face goes red instantly. “I didn’t mean to say that, like that. It was mean of me.”

“What makes you think I have a girlfriend?” he sneers with a shake of his wispy hair as he places more cookies on the tray.

My forehead crinkles. “Oh, well I saw you and Sierra at the Christmas party so I assumed—”

“—Yeah, no,” he cuts me off with a repulsed tone in his voice that surprises me. “That is definitely not—Okay, how could you [_ever _]think that?”

Now he seems offended and as I gaze back at him, I find him staring at me with a confusing expression. I can’t help but smile.

“I don’t know. You always look so chummy with her.”

“Yeah, no,” he says again shaking his head. “That’s me being tolerant. Please, give me more credit than that. I mean I’m sure she’s a nice person but…well, let’s leave it at ‘but’.”

I can’t help but laugh, even though his joke wasn’t particularly funny.

I’m laughing from relief that he has no feelings towards Sierra at all.

That it was all in her head, in my head.

He has no feelings for her.

“Is that why she’s been dressing so, normal lately?” I ask, thinking back on her outfit today and yesterday.

“Oh no, that’s because Jocelyn and I secretly reported her to HR.” He smiles big.

I laugh again, “That’s mean of you guys.”

“Come on.” He lets out a chuckle, and he sounds so much like his grandfather I have to look up from the cookie tray at him. “Someone should have reported her months ago. What she wore was always so inappropriate!”

I nod in agreement and when the baking sheet in front of me is empty, I pick it up. I leave him and cross the kitchen to slide the baking sheet into the sink behind us. I give it a quick rinse and then join Perry back at the stove.

He’s finished putting the rest of the cookies on the last cookie tray and I find a small white envelope with my name on it, set on the counter. I reach over with a frown,

“What’s this?”

“Secret Santa gift,” Perry answers as he leans against the counter, watching me. “Go on, open it.”

“Wait, you’re my Secret Santa?” I look into his eyes, confused. “But you said you had Vince?”

“I switched. Don’t tell the evil twins.” He crosses his arms over his chest and his mouth twitches, as if he was trying to hide a smile.

My heart leaps so quickly in my ribcage I’m worried I may lose my breath.

“You switched for me?”

“Oh my God, Kinsley.” He shakes his head at me as he laughs a little. “Just open it up.”

I bite the inside of my mouth as I try to hide a smile, slowly pulling apart the envelope. I reach inside with two fingers and pull out something thin and plastic. I notice the green lettering instantly. As I turn over the see-through gift card, I can’t help but laugh.

“Starbucks,” I nod. “A Starbucks gift card.”

“I figure it could be our thing.”

After a moment I look up from the envelope and gift card to find him standing right in front of me. Other than sitting behind his desk together, this is the nearest we have ever been. The elf on his sweater is staring me right in the face, until I look up at Perry that is.

He has his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “So, Jocelyn told me.”

I wish I didn’t know what he meant, but I do.

My eyes flutter shut and it feels like my heart drops into the pit of my stomach. “I’m going to rip her into a thousand pieces.”

“She told me [_after _]I told her.” Perry ignores me as his voice softens.

Slowly I open my eyes again and I feel my mouth get dry as nerves overtake me.

“You told her what?”

He can’t help but give me a wistful smirk as he steps closer to me, his hands coming out of his pockets. I feel his hands touch my back softly and I arch against it, straight against his chest. One of his hands slips off my back and lightly brushes my cheek as he leans down to me. His lips brush against mine tenderly and his hands now grip my arms. I’m on my toes as I return the softness of his kiss and when I feel him smile through it, I can’t help but do the same.

He breaks from me a moment later, holding his smile, and whispers, “Merry Christmas.”

2

It turns out Sam gave the Social Department full run of our Secret Santa gig this year, and Sierra was just so excited. She will be walking around with names in a hat tomorrow morning, and I am wishing like a goon that I’ll somehow be able to pick out Perry’s name from the hat.

Please let me pick out Perry’s name. Please, please, please…

As I take the subway to Morningside Villa after work, I creep Sierra’s Instagram again. Perry is definitely not her type of man, at least not according to her Instagram posts. All her previous men looked like runaway models with bronzed skin, six packs, and hair that shone brightly in every picture.

I’m in a mood when I get to Morningside and my grandmother picks up on it the moment I walk into her room. She sits in her armchair, across from her small television set, watching her soap operas. Her black hair, almost all grey now, is twisted back in a bun. She’s in a pair of fuzzy red slippers and a green robe.

“How can you be grumpy at Christmas?” she asks.

I throw my coat and purse down on her bed and then sit on its edge. “I’m not grumpy Grandma; it was just a long day at work.”

I watch her small eyes, still bright green at the age of seventy six, dart from me to the television. “Did you get my cookies?”

Her room is one of the medium sized rooms, offered on the ground floor of the three-story building. It’s painted light pink, and has two sets of large windows, which my grandmother has covered with white drapes and blinds. Her bed is a standard queen size like all the beds in the retirement home, dressed in a heavy navy blue duvet and matching pillow shams. Her en suite bathroom is adjacent from it. Family photos line every section of bare wall in the room, and some of the pictures are black and white.

“I did,” I nod. “Thank you. You could have given them to me today though.”

“It’s nice to receive packages.” She shrugs leaning her head into the headrest of the velvet arm chair. “Did you eat them?”

“Jocelyn and Perry ate them all actually. Jocelyn says hi by the way.”

“That explains why you’re in a bad mood.” My grandma looks away from me. “Tell Jocelyn I’ll send her some this week.”

“Or you could just hand them to me when I come see you Friday,” I remark.

I watch her roll her eyes at me before speaking again. “Did you ask Perry out yet?”

This happens every time I come to visit.

For the last 30 days, anyway.

I was feeling particularly low one evening when I came to see her, after a stressful interaction with Sierra and a horrible blind date Jocelyn had set me up on. I had snuck away from the date after he went to the bathroom, and I was already three apple martinis in. So I was a bit more outgoing than usual by the time I got to Morningside Villa. When my grandmother asked me why I gave up on the date, and how a woman like me could still be single, I confided in her about Perry.

Big mistake.

“Grandma.” I sigh, placing my hands on the bed behind me. “That won’t happen. I told you that.”

“Why not? You said he’s a nice boy, he’s funny, and he works hard…” slowly she sits up and leans towards me. “What is it? Does he have a hump?” “Grandma!”

“That’s genetics, you know.” She shakes a finger at me as she leans back into her chair. “Don’t marry someone who has a hump.”

I try not to giggle but I can’t help it and when I do, I see her smile from the corner of my eye. A moment later she says, “The family Christmas dinner is next week.”

“Yup, I got the email,” I say. “I will be here.”

She doesn’t say anything to me and I wonder if she’s thinking about my mother. My mother, who decided to move out east by the ocean three years ago with my father, and leave my grandmother and me behind. Other than Facetiming with her once a month, we haven’t seen either of them since they left. Every holiday the retirement home throws a dinner for its residents and their families, and I make it every time.

“I’m making cookies for the dinner,” my grandmother informs me. “My friends here asked me to. They all love them.” She pauses and looks back at me, “Are you bringing anybody?”

“You mean, like Jocelyn?” I frown. “Probably not.”

She shakes her head at me and I suddenly get what she means.

“It’s just been so long for you, Kinsley.” My grandmother focuses on me and I meet her kind eyes. Her smile is there, but there’s a sadness behind it that bothers me. “I just want you to find a nice boy.”

“I will,” I answer quickly, not a trace of confidence in my tone. “I promise.” My grandma just nods at me and looks back at her television.

“Nobody likes to be alone during the holidays…”

3

It’s the next morning, and when I get into work I find Jocelyn at my desk. Her floor has already pulled their names from their hats and she has lucked out in picking out her secretary’s name. Somebody she gets along with well.

“It’s so much more festive on your floor than mine,” Jocelyn steps up next to me, and together we lean against the plastic wall at my desk. “We have a white tree in the corner with a gold star. That’s it.”

“Did your grandma give you anymore cookies?” Jocelyn then asks.

I shake my head. “No, but she’s sending you some.”

Jocelyn’s mouth bursts into a grin. “Sweet.” She plays with the ends of her dark hair, and gives me a hard look. “Did you ask Perry out yet?”

My mouth drops open just a little as I digest her words.

“How did—How did you know—”

“Please.” She throws a hand up at me, “Kinsley. We’ve been friends for two years now. I know you like him, even if you think you’re exceptionally good at hiding it.”

“I thought I was,” I look down at the floor, covering my face with both hands.

“You are,” she practically laughs, and I feel her hands wrap around my wrists. She pulls my hands from my face and smiles at me. “Honestly, you are. I mean I had some suspicion but it wasn’t until I mentioned Sierra’s boob popping out in front of him that I saw it on your face.”

I groan, and she lets go of my wrists.

“Don’t worry; I won’t say anything to anyone but, Kinsley? You should ask him out. He’s a nice guy.”

I can’t help but let out a sarcastic laugh. “Sierra is into him, and I’m pretty sure he’s into her.”

Jocelyn makes a gagging sound and I smile, looking away from her.

I notice the evil twins heading our direction and gasp.

Next to me, Jocelyn whispers a curse word I can’t really make out.

Sierra and Michael Wallace, her evil twin who works on the blog with her, are in full costume. He’s in a bright green elf’s uniform, complete with a red sleeping hat, and shoes with bells. His dark hair is gelled neatly to the side and his contoured make up is as usual, perfect. He follows Sierra like a loyal lapdog, handing out candy canes to the employees they stop at.

Sierra is in a Mrs. Claus costume. The skirt ends high above her knee, her legs are draped in knee-high strip socks and her boots are at least five inches off the ground. Her shirt cuts off at the shoulders, and a low v-cut up front holds little to the imagination when it comes to her breasts.

“Okay, that is so inappropriate!” I hiss at Jocelyn.

“I don’t know how she gets away with the things she puts on her body,” Jocelyn shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “HR is a joke here.”

We watch as she and Michael reach Digital Marketing. Both Jocelyn and I get on our toes. Sierra pushes the Santa hat in her hands out at Perry. I watch, almost too eagerly, as he reaches inside. He’s dressed in jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt today. His hair falls over his forehead as he unfolds the slip of paper in his hands and nods.

Sierra leans forward and whispers something to him. I watch him smile, and I fall off my toes onto my heel. As she squeezes his arm, I look away and pretend to focus on the hem of my plaid skirt.

“You really should just ask him out,” Jocelyn whispers when she sees my expression.

“I’m not his type.”

Jocelyn shakes her head at me but remains silent, only because the evil twins are making a beeline towards my work area. Once they stop in front of me, Sierra thrusts the hat my way and gives me a smug smile. Next to her, Michael is spinning the hook part of a candy cane around his index finger, clearly bored.

I reach inside of the hat, feeling around and noticing instantly that there is only one slip of paper for me to take. As I pull it out, Sierra gives Jocelyn a smile before looking back at me.

“So Ken, think I could pick your brain later on today about something?”

“It’s Kinsley,” Jocelyn corrects, frowning at her.

“Yeah I know,” Sierra smirks, exchanging a look with Michael, who shares her goofy grin. “I was using a nickname.”

“What did you want to talk about?” I ask Sierra quickly, deciding it is better to jump in before Jocelyn snaps at her.

“Oh, I need some ideas,” Sierra steps closer to me, whipping her long blond hair over her shoulder. I can smell her perfume, sickly sweet, wafting from her neckline as she leans into my left ear to whisper. “I have Perry for Secret Santa and am at a complete loss.”

I feel my hands ball into fists and my heart caves within me a little bit.

I pray the smile I force over my face hides my agony from her. “Sure, I can help with that.”

“Peaches!” She squeezes her nails into my arm with a grin too wide for my liking and then bids us farewell. Michael follows behind her and after giving me a once over, over his shoulder, he says something to Sierra and they burst out laughing.

“We exchange gifts Tuesday folks!” Sierra screams out to the room as her laughter with Michael fades.

“What did she want?” Jocelyn asks me as I turn and walk around to my desk. My legs feel heavy beneath me and when I finally plop down on my chair, I’m relieved that I’m off them.

“Nothing. Work thing,” I lie.

I don’t know why I lied to Jocelyn, maybe it was to save face, or maybe it was because I didn’t want her to realize just how much I do like Perry. Right now she thinks it’s just a small crush, and it’s better it stays that way.

Realizing I still haven’t checked who my Secret Santa is, I unfold the paper in my hands, and groan loudly as I show Jocelyn who I have. She lets out a grunt and sighs.

Michael Wallace.

4

“Let’s move the clip for the pre-order sale for Guardians of the Mountain to the left. That way we can put the award ribbons right there alongside of it, so it catches everyone’s eye.”

By two o’clock, I’ve found myself working alongside Perry at his desk. We sit close, elbows grazing every few seconds as we look from his computer screen to my notes on the yellow notepad.

I watch him move the mouse cursor across the screen, dragging the images along with them and starting to position them like I suggested.

“Forgot to tell you, I think your grandmother’s cookies worked,” Perry suddenly says giving me a quick look. “After I ate one, I couldn’t get I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus out of my head the entire day.”

I let out a small giggle, instantly feeling my cheeks redden as he focuses his dark eyes on me. I have to look back at the computer screen until he whispers to me,

“So, did you get someone good for Secret Santa?”

“Did you?” I counter, looking from the screen to him.

His nose crinkles and he shakes his head when a few strands of hair fall over his eyes. “Nah, I got Vince, my supervisor. I already get him a gift every year for Christmas so now he’s going to get two from me, or a really big one.”

I smile and look back at his work on the screen. “I got someone lame too, but I think they’d like a Starbucks gift card, maybe…”

“Yikes,” Perry’s voice gets high and he makes a face at me. “A Starbucks gift card, the go-to gift you give someone you don’t know, or like.”

“That’s not true,” I stifle a laugh but the smile spreads over my face. “Lots of people love Starbucks gift cards.”

“Unless someone specifically asks for one, it’s the go to gift card,” Perry motions with his free hand, his humorous tone alive. “Nobody ever turns down a Starbucks gift card, that’s why people get it for people they don’t really know.”

“That’s absurd! I’m sure there are other gift cards people get for someone they don’t know.”

“Nope,” Perry answers quickly. “It’s always Starbucks, but you should just agree to disagree on me with this one.”

I narrow my eyes at him and watch his eyes twinkle at his own jousting. I elbow him in the side and shake my head. “You think you’re so funny.”

“I was voted most likely to be a stand-up comedian in high school,” he tells me, a comical tone of arrogance coming over him, “so yes, I do think I’m quite funny. Probably the funniest, if I’m being honest.”

I laugh and look down at the notes between us.

My hands may be sweaty and my skin warm from nerves as I sit close to him, but I like it. I don’t want to get up from my seat and go back to my work station.

“Delivery.”

We both look up and see our mailman, arms stretched over the plastic wall at Perry’s desk. In his hands is a large square box, wrapped up with an Express Shipping label over the sides. Perry thanks him for it, taking it with both hands and then sets it down underneath his desk.

“What’s with all the packages lately?” I ask, remembering what I saw on his desk yesterday.

It takes him a moment to respond as he sits back up and pushes the box further beneath his desk with his foot. “Uh, Christmas presents. I avoid the stores during the holidays.”

I narrow my eyes at him again, and he lifts his eyebrows high, shrugging at the same time. Something in his answer wasn’t genuine and I think about calling him out on his lie.

“Oh hey. Moving my gramps in at Morningside at the end of the week,” Perry tells me, as he pulls himself up against his desk again. “I think he’s more excited to get out of my mom’s house than she is.”

I smile softly. “He’ll like it there.”

Perry reaches for the mouse and begins to move the graphics across the page again.

5

By the time Friday hits, I am more than relieved. Next Friday is Christmas, which means after this weekend we have only two days of work until we all get two weeks off for Christmas and New Year’s.

Then I remember we have the company Christmas party tomorrow night, and on the e-vite Sierra sent out, it said “Classy Dress Only Please.” I can only guess what she will be wearing to it. My black mini dress will look like a garbage bag compared to her outfit, I’m sure.

Upon leaving work Friday afternoon, Sierra cornered me at my desk and kept me hostage for thirty minutes. She has done it for the last two days, ever since we pulled names. She sat on my desk, her long smooth legs swaying back and forth in front of me, because she was in another short red skirt. As if she was bragging about them.

“I kind of want, like, I know I want it to be a cute gift, but not cheesy. Like, cute and romantic and really, really fun,” she kept telling me. “Maybe I want it to be a little bit sexy? I don’t know…We flirt all the time. \He makes fun of my Insta account, and I make fun of his love for board games…”

It was the worst thirty minutes of my life. Not because talking to her brought my IQ down, but because today she has confirmed my fears.

Perry does like her, and that the smile I saw on his face when she came to my desk earlier in the week was genuine.

How could Perry like her? What is it about her, other than her obvious looks, that draws him to her? Could I stand to be a little bit more like Sierra?

The thought alone has me shudder in terror.

Suffice it to say, I’m in a mood again when I get to Morningside to see my grandma. After saying hi to the nursing staff, and noticing that they had a platter of Grandma’s freshly baked cookies at their station, I make my way to her room. It’s empty, and after throwing my coat and purse on her made-up bed, I leave in search for her.

A few rooms down from her room is the kitchen so I decide to check there first.

I am not five feet from the door when I hear someone give out a grumbly shout. Then comes a loud wooden bang that has me jump.

“Get out of here before I whack you like a male dog!”

I know that voice.

I unglue myself from my place and rush into the kitchen. The shared kitchen is small, made only for the residents to cook their own meals if they choose. The dining hall is across the hall, and they have their own cafeteria for the residents who choose not to cook.

One side of the wall is all pale counters with generic pink countertops. I see a cutting board, a bag of flour, a carton of eggs and a half used bag of sugar positioned carefully onto it. A used rolling pin rests against the floured up cutting board, and my grandmother stands in front of it with an even larger rolling pin.

She has it high over her hair, her apron stained with colored icing and flour. Standing just a foot in front of her is an elderly gentleman I have never seen before. He is well over six feet, with gracious wrinkles over his oval face, and bushy grey eyebrows. His hair, the color of my grandma’s flour, is parted elegantly to the side.

“Easy there now, sugar lips.” He has both hands out in front of him, and if I had to guess, a Jersey accent. “I was just curious.”

“Grandma!” I hurry over to her and grab the heavy rolling pin from her hands.

Immediately my grandmother glares at me, strands of her greying hair coming undone from her usual bun. “He was being all handsy with my cookies!”

The man chuckles behind me; it’s a loud, deep laugh that echoes around the small room. I find myself trying not to laugh at how grandma’s statement could be misconstrued.

“You don’t hit him with a rolling pin,” I tell her, holding it firmly in both hands now.

“He deserved it,” my grandmother throws a finger at him. “I’d be careful if I was you, or you may just end up with a laxative in your morning coffee!”

“Grandma!” I grab her arm firmly and give her a look before I turn to the man. “She didn’t mean that.”

Again, the man laughs. His smile is unexpectedly sincere, two dimples surfacing at the corner of his mouth as he nods at me. “I’ve been threatened with worse. Don’t you worry young lady.”

“You’re not even here an hour, and already causing a problem, Dad?”

I look over at the door to see a tall, slender woman with curly brown hair leaning against the doorframe. She’s in a long grey sweater and black pants, her face full of exhaustion and it shows from the way her eyebrows have raised in annoyance. Her dark eyes strike me though, and I can’t help but stare at them a tad longer than I should. Something about them is familiar and comfortable.

“No, he’s not,” I say to her, shoving the rolling pin at my grandma. She takes it with a mumble. “He was just admiring my grandmother’s baking.”

“Smells lovely,” the woman nods, pushing up from the doorframe. “I could smell it all the way down the hall.”

“Every year I make Christmas cookies.” My grandmother leaves my side and crosses the room. She throws a glare at the woman’s father as she passes him. When she reaches the stove behind him; she picks up the baking sheet full of cookies. She extends them outward and motions for the woman to take one. “Fresh from the oven.”

“Thank you.” The woman smiles as she looks down and chooses one of the nearest, brightest, star cookies. She bites into it quickly and makes a hmmm sound at its taste. “So, what was my Dad doing to you?”

“He was getting at my cookies, without being asked.” My grandmother straightens herself up, still gripping the baking sheet in her hands. “And then he was being rather inappropriate.”

The woman swallows the cookie and narrows her big eyes at her father. “Dad, are you kidding me? Again?”

“What can I say?” He shrugs his shoulders and nudges me in the side with his elbow. “I can’t control myself when there’s a pretty lady around.”

“[_This _]pretty lady,” my grandma turns her head at him, “is not interested.” The man winks anyway, and when I see my grandma bare her teeth, I make my move.

“Okay, Grandma.” I walk towards her, “let’s take the cookies into the dining room now.”

“I have to put them on a plate.” She pulls away from my grasp and heads back to the oven.

We hear footsteps at the door and turn around to face our new visitor.

Standing in a grey ski jacket, with a pair of black gloves in his hands and his hair blown wildly to the side from the winter air, is Perry. He looks from the woman in the room to me, to the old man, back to me.

For a moment I’m confused as to why he’s here.

“Kinsley,” he says, producing a smile. “I see you’ve met my mom and grandfather.”

“This—this is your grandfather?” I motion at the older man behind me, who I’ve seen has wandered back towards my grandmother and the oven.

“You two know each other?” Perry’s mother finishes the cookie quickly and looks from me to her son.

“We work together,” Perry answers. “Kinsley was the one who gave us the referral for Morningside, and her grandmother got us the interview.”

“Oh, that was you.” His mother turns to me with a smile. “Well I should thank you both. This really is a nice retirement community.” She side-eyes her father. “I only hope he behaves himself so he doesn’t get kicked out.”

“You beast!”

We turn around to see my grandmother slap Perry’s grandfather in the hand before turning her back on him, holding the cookies on a large white porcelain plate. She adjusts her posture and gives us all a nod as she leaves the room, cookies in hand.

“Dad,” Perry’s mother moans loudly at him, “please, behave yourself here.”

He lifts up his hand, one of the Christmas tree cookies in it. We watch him bite into it. “No promises.”

“I better go after my grandma,” I say, motioning at the door where Perry stands. “It was nice to meet you all.”

As Perry’s mother approaches her father, she begins to lecture him in a low voice. I reach Perry who moves out of my way. We smile at each other as I pass through.

“See you at the Christmas party tomorrow,” he calls out behind me.

“Yup, see you there!”

Why am I so awkward?

6

The Christmas party starts promptly at seven o’clock, downstairs in the main lobby of the skyscraper at Fantasy Horizons. The glass walls are covered with dense sheets so that nobody passing the building outside can see the staff over-indulging on drinks and food. The two main Christmas trees are lit up for the night, and there is fake snow scattered throughout the room. Remixed Christmas music plays from the speakers above us, and waiters walk around with trays of drinks and appetizers.

I stand near the front desk with Jocelyn, watching everybody get in the swing of things. The front desk is littered with desserts people brought from home including brownies, Jell-o shots, and fudge. A tray of my grandmother’s cookies sits near us, already half gone and the only thing touched from the table.

Sierra stands out like a sore thumb, in a mini-sequined green number which has an exceptionally low v-cut in the front and back. Her hair is blown out, and cascading down her tanned shoulders like a waterfall. She has already captured the attention of most of the men we work with. Loyal Michael Wallace stands next to her, in a smart grey ironic tuxedo, looking bored out of his mind as he checks his nail beds.

“She looks ridiculous,” Jocelyn scoffs as she takes a drink of her wine. “I mean, if one thread of that tacky dress were to unravel, then she’d be standing there naked. Butt naked, because I bet you any money she’s got nothing on underneath.”

I tug at the bottom of my black mini dress, which I paired with thick green tights and ankle boots. It is a simple dress, with a modest v-cut and a low back. I left my hair down but curled the ends so it bobs up against my chin nicely.

Next to Sierra, I look like a nun.

“So, are we making any headway with Mr. Perry?” Jocelyn turns to ask me. A mischievous grin comes over her face as her glasses tip down her nose.

“No, please. You know me.” I roll my eyes at her as I take a quick drink of my rum and Coke. “He doesn’t even know I exist.”

“You’ve been working together every week for the last eight weeks,” Jocelyn sighs. “Trust me, he knows.”

“I mean he doesn’t have the slightest clue I am into him.”

“And whose fault is that?” Jocelyn quickly counters.

I say nothing as we both look over at him. He’s standing against one of the Christmas trees, a few other members of his team standing with him. He’s in a dark suit with a red tie with reindeer scattered throughout. He has a bottle of beer in his hand and is gesturing passionately at the man next to him.

“Go over and make casual conversation.” Jocelyn puts a hand on my back and pushes me forward. “Compliment his tie, or better yet, make fun of it.”

I’m hesitant, despite her pushing me forward. After a sigh, I hear Jocelyn say behind me, “Alright. I’ll come with you.”

We barely take a step before Sierra intrudes on the conversation Perry is having with his team members. She swings a hand around Perry’s waist and steps on her toes in her knee high boots, kicking her heel in the air as if she’s in a 1950’s romance film. She has a hand stretched out over Perry’s head and in it, she wiggles mistletoe.

My can feel my stomach turning, and my heart thuds so hard that it’s all I hear. I swallow hard as I watch Sierra lean over and press her red lips against Perry’s. The people around them laugh and cheer and I have to look down at my feet for a moment.

I make myself spin around and I can see Jocelyn’s twisted face. She opens her mouth to speak but I’m quicker.

“It’s fine, really.” My voice shakes a little as I walk back towards the front desk. “I’m not his type, and it’s just a crush.”

Jocelyn watches me set down my drink, “But what if it’s not—”

“I think I’m going to head home now.” I look at her slowly and shrug.

The plus side with Jocelyn knowing about my feelings towards Perry is that I don’t have to hide my disappointment anymore. I can wear it out like a nice pair of earrings.

I can hear Sierra’s booming laughter behind me, and I have to force myself not to look over my shoulder.

“I’ll see you Monday, okay?”

Jocelyn takes a breath but after a second she just smiles. “Do you want to take home the rest of your Christmas cookies?”

“No.” I shake my head as I take a step back from her. “Let everyone else enjoy them.”

7

I spend Sunday blissfully alone, watching reruns of old sitcoms on television, a marathon of their best Christmas episodes. It is one episode of Beverly Hills 90210 that has me decide, after the holidays, I will start getting over a man who barely knew I existed.

When I go into work Monday, the floor is abuzz with what happened after I left the Christmas party. A few coworkers became too drunk to function and passed out on the fake snow, Michael Wallace outed a co-worker accidentally but on purpose, and Sierra danced on top of the front desk.

I manage to avoid almost everyone that day, throwing myself into approving our last few products for the Boxing Day sale on the site. I don’t see Perry or Jocelyn all day, and the few times I do happen to peer over my plastic wall towards Perry’s desk, I notice it is always empty.

On Tuesday morning I’m mindlessly clicking away on color changes for the sale banner when someone throws down my plastic tray that I had placed Christmas cookies on for the party. I remove my hand from the mouse, blow a few pieces of my bangs from my eyes and look up slowly.

At first I’m not sure who I’m looking up at. The woman definitely looks like Sierra but, it has to be her twin. Her long glistening hair is pulled back into a severe bun, and she’s in a pair of slacks with a matching black blazer. There is absolutely no skin showing but the nape of her neck and she has a bold red statement necklace draped over it. It looks like there is barely any make-up on her face.

“Sierra?”

“Those cookies you brought to the party?” Her tone is sharp and unmoving. “They had me on the toilet all Sunday.”

I make a face at her as I touch the tray, trying hard not to smile at the image of her stuck in her bathroom. “Are you sure it was my grandmother’s cookies and not a hangover?”

She draws a breath through her teeth and raises a finger at me, “I do not get hung over. I have greens every day, and I diffuse my oils every morning.”

“Ohhh…”

“Michael loved your gift by the way. He’s so into Starbucks it’s not even funny.” Her voice barely hits a note as she lets out a jaded breath. “Anyway, laters.”

She turns and leaves me.

The small interaction has me in a great mood all day so by the time I get to Morningside Villa for the Resident Christmas Dinner I know my grandmother will be pleased that I am out of my sour mood.

She is already in the Dining Hall, behind one of the long tables covered with green table clothes. She’s saved me a seat next to her, and good thing, because other than two seats across from her, it is one of the only seats at that table left. The room is bustling with families, and the energy is lovely.

There is a Christmas tree in every corner of the room. Red and green tulle come across the ceiling towards the big chandelier in the middle.

It smells divine; warm, toasty turkey is about to be served. Each table has bowls of cranberry sauce already placed on it and you can smell its sweetness. My mouth is starting to water as I reach my Grandma’s table. There is a buffet table near the cafeteria kitchen that has a line a mile long, but I can see salads and fruit dishes.

“Hi Grandma,” I greet her. I bend down and give her light kiss on the forehead. She smells like her cookies, all sugary and syrupy. Her hair is up in its bun but she has fake red flowers woven through it. She’s in a green sweater, a Santa Claus pin over her heart, and a set of pearls. “You look nice.”

“You didn’t bring anybody?” she asks as I take a seat next to her. I throw her a smile as I unbutton my coat.

“I told you I wouldn’t be.”

“How can both you lovely ladies be single?”

I throw my pea coat over the back of my wooden chair and look across the table to find Perry’s grandfather sitting right across from my grandmother. He’s ever so silly in his green knitted Christmas sweater with the face of an elf on it. He winks at me and I can’t help but smirk.

“Just ignore him.” My grandmother waves her hand in front of my face. “He’s a nuisance.”

“Name’s William, by the way.”

He extends his hand and I take it as my grandmother exhales with annoyance. His shake is warm and firm and as we pull apart, I notice he’s alone.

To that I’m eternally grateful.

I don’t think I can see Perry after my pow-wow Sunday, my vow to get over him and find someone new.

“Nice to officially meet you,” I say to him as I take back my hand. “Hope you’re enjoying yourself so far.”

“It’s interesting,” William answers with a chuckle, “to say the least.”

“He thinks he can charm his way into the nurses’ good graces,” my grandmother leans over to tell me. “But they see right through him. Just like I do.”

I can’t help but laugh as I look down at my empty white plate. There’s a basket of fresh baked buns in front of me and the smell is making me drool a little. I go to reach for one but someone beats me to the basket first.

“Brains before beauty don’t you think?”

I try not to nervously smile at the sound of Perry’s voice and instead, just look up as he takes a seat next to his grandfather. In one hand he has a plate of food from the buffet table. Greek salad over-flows his plate, with extra olives and feta cheese, but that isn’t exactly what catches my eye.

It’s the knitted sweater he wears; exactly like his grandfathers, only red.

I have to laugh and I fail at hiding it behind my hand as I cover my mouth.

“I see.” Perry sighs. There’s a playful undertone to his voice as he raises a single eyebrow at me. “So you’re going to laugh at my sweater just like the cool kids did in high school.”

“No, no,” I manage to control my giggle and clear my throat. “I’m not laughing…”

“I laughed too,” my grandmother boasts loudly and proudly.

There comes an awkward silence over us as Perry digs into his salad. After he takes a bite, he looks up at me. I’m careful not to look into his eyes, afraid he’ll know I’m trying to keep the replay of his and Sierra’s kiss out of my mind. My heart stings just at the thought of it. “So, how was work?”

“Slow,” I shrug, and then remember I haven’t seen him all day. “Were you not in at all?”

“I was…” Perry lifts both hands, fork in between his fingers as he begins to air quote, “sick.”

“Ha,” William lets out a laugh as he slaps his grandson’s back hard. “He wasn’t sick. He was building his game.”

I frown and look back at Perry, who narrows his eyes at his grandfather.

“Remember when I said it was a secret grandpa?” He asks with a sigh, “A secret?”

“You’re building a game?” I wiggle in my seat and lean back into it. “Wait a second; was that what the packages where you kept getting at the office?”

Perry’s eyes scan my face, and its then I see that he and his mother share the same warm, delicate, chocolate color tone. After a second he runs a hand through his thick brown hair, slowly nodding. “Guilty. They were not Christmas gifts.”

“I knew it.” I shake my head at him. “I knew you were lying.”

He goes back to his salad, and I can hear William grumble something at my grandmother, who in turn, begins to bellyache back at him.

“So,” I say as I reach over for one of the bread rolls. It’s warm and practically comes apart in my hands. I tear off a piece and pop it in my mouth. “What’s the game about?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he sighs jokingly.

“I can’t believe you just said that.” I shake my head at him as I chew the soft dough.

“It’s a standard nerdy, role playing game involving giants and trolls, and a queen who can turn people into stone,” he answers casually. “Like Medusa.”

“The standard kind of nerd game,” I repeat as I put another piece of the bun in my mouth. “It’s kind of cool that you made up a whole game.”

Kind of?” he repeats with a sarcastic scoff, “It’s really cool, thank you very much.”

“He has a meeting with investors after Christmas,” William brags with a proud smile. “This game is going to be big.”

“Wow.” I’m impressed and it shows, “That is amazing.”

“Well we don’t know if they’ll even bite,” Perry shrugs, chomping into a forkful of olives. “They were interested in the storyline, but wanted to see a prototype first.”

My grandmother suddenly hits my side with her elbow and I make a hissing sound as I glare at her. She motions at the doorway,

“My cookies! I left them in the kitchen. You two go get them. Hurry, people will be asking where they are.”

“I can get them myself,” I say pushing my chair back.

“Be a gentleman,” William harks at Perry but I notice Perry is already getting to his feet.

We leave the dining room together, Perry leading the way across the hall to the kitchen.

When we get to the kitchen, we notice the Christmas cookies right away, on four baking pans, cooling. We walk over to the stove and Perry reaches for one of the white trays my grandmother has waiting.

Our shoulders touch as we begin to set the cookies upon the first tray slowly and I’m trying to calm my stupid racing heart. His aftershave is light and fresh, a hint of peppermint that I think is perfect for the Christmas season.

“Hey, do me a favor?” Perry looks down at me. “Keep this under wraps from people at work? Technically, what I’m doing could get me fired. Pitching to investors not related to Fantasy Horizons.”

I smile as I look down at the cookies. “I’ll be quiet.”

He pops a cookie into his mouth and sighs happily. After he swallows it he speaks. “Best cookies ever.”

I reach down for one myself, a star one, and bite into its sweetness. I fail at containing my pleasure at its taste, letting out an “Mmmm” before I finish it.

“Your girlfriend doesn’t seem to think so,” I say to Perry after I swallow the last bit.

Next to me, he takes half a step back and I look up to see him frowning. “My girlfriend?”

“Sorry.” My face goes red instantly. “I didn’t mean to say that, like that. It was mean of me.”

“What makes you think I have a girlfriend?” he sneers with a shake of his wispy hair as he places more cookies on the tray.

My forehead crinkles. “Oh, well I saw you and Sierra at the Christmas party so I assumed—”

“—Yeah, no,” he cuts me off with a repulsed tone in his voice that surprises me. “That is definitely not—Okay, how could you [_ever _]think that?”

Now he seems offended and as I gaze back at him, I find him staring at me with a confusing expression. I can’t help but smile.

“I don’t know. You always look so chummy with her.”

“Yeah, no,” he says again shaking his head. “That’s me being tolerant. Please, give me more credit than that. I mean I’m sure she’s a nice person but…well, let’s leave it at ‘but’.”

I can’t help but laugh, even though his joke wasn’t particularly funny.

I’m laughing from relief that he has no feelings towards Sierra at all.

That it was all in her head, in my head.

He has no feelings for her.

“Is that why she’s been dressing so, normal lately?” I ask, thinking back on her outfit today and yesterday.

“Oh no, that’s because Jocelyn and I secretly reported her to HR.” He smiles big.

I laugh again, “That’s mean of you guys.”

“Come on.” He lets out a chuckle, and he sounds so much like his grandfather I have to look up from the cookie tray at him. “Someone should have reported her months ago. What she wore was always so inappropriate!”

I nod in agreement and when the baking sheet in front of me is empty, I pick it up. I leave him and cross the kitchen to slide the baking sheet into the sink behind us. I give it a quick rinse and then join Perry back at the stove.

He’s finished putting the rest of the cookies on the last cookie tray and I find a small white envelope with my name on it, set on the counter. I reach over with a frown,

“What’s this?”

“Secret Santa gift,” Perry answers as he leans against the counter, watching me. “Go on, open it.”

“Wait, you’re my Secret Santa?” I look into his eyes, confused. “But you said you had Vince?”

“I switched. Don’t tell the evil twins.” He crosses his arms over his chest and his mouth twitches, as if he was trying to hide a smile.

My heart leaps so quickly in my ribcage I’m worried I may lose my breath.

“You switched for me?”

“Oh my God, Kinsley.” He shakes his head at me as he laughs a little. “Just open it up.”

I bite the inside of my mouth as I try to hide a smile, slowly pulling apart the envelope. I reach inside with two fingers and pull out something thin and plastic. I notice the green lettering instantly. As I turn over the see-through gift card, I can’t help but laugh.

“Starbucks,” I nod. “A Starbucks gift card.”

“I figure it could be our thing.”

After a moment I look up from the envelope and gift card to find him standing right in front of me. Other than sitting behind his desk together, this is the nearest we have ever been. The elf on his sweater is staring me right in the face, until I look up at Perry that is.

He has his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “So, Jocelyn told me.”

I wish I didn’t know what he meant, but I do.

My eyes flutter shut and it feels like my heart drops into the pit of my stomach. “I’m going to rip her into a thousand pieces.”

“She told me [_after _]I told her.” Perry ignores me as his voice softens.

Slowly I open my eyes again and I feel my mouth get dry as nerves overtake me.

“You told her what?”

He can’t help but give me a wistful smirk as he steps closer to me, his hands coming out of his pockets. I feel his hands touch my back softly and I arch against it, straight against his chest. One of his hands slips off my back and lightly brushes my cheek as he leans down to me. His lips brush against mine tenderly and his hands now grip my arms. I’m on my toes as I return the softness of his kiss and when I feel him smile through it, I can’t help but do the same.

He breaks from me a moment later, holding his smile, and whispers, “Merry Christmas.”

About the Author

Vivian Brooks lives in Canada with her loving husband and their two rambunctious children. When she isn’t ordering her children to behave or begging her Border Terrier to listen to her, she sits behind her lap-top plotting out the next adventure of her new characters. She’s a fan of a good glass of Pinot Noir, and can’t live without her favorite tea blends. She also writes Cozy Mysteries under the name Nikki LeClair. All of her works are published on Amazon, available in paperback or for your e-reader. She enjoys hearing from readers so please reach out! You can find her on twitter at @NikkiL_Books, and on her Facebook Fanpage Nikki LeClair.

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Also by Vivian Brooks/Nikki LeClair

Haunting Me (Book One in Haunting Me Series) by Nikki LeClair

Locking Up Santa (Book Two in Haunting Me Series) by Nikki LeClair

All Because of You by Vivian Brooks

A Holly Jolly Heartache

S.E. Babin

1

She was prettier than me. That was the worst thing about it. I could have handled it if I’d caught him with someone snaggle-toothed and frizzy-haired. But no. She was tanned, trim, toned, and heart-breakingly beautiful.

Merry Freaking Christmas, Jess.

I watched as my dejected, now ex-boyfriend struggled with putting his suitcases in the taxi pulled up outside of the townhome we’d once shared. Well. [_Shared _]being he’d lived here, eaten my food and barely worked, and I’d paid all of the bills. I groaned and rubbed my hands over my face.

This should be a good thing. I let the curtain fall and turned back to my now quiet apartment. The Christmas tree I’d so lovingly decorated blinked at me in sad synchronicity. The white lights twinkled against the beautiful pewter color I’d picked out and painted the walls so long ago. Christopher hadn’t cared one iota, but I’d been so excited about it I could barely stand myself.

And yet, here I was. Alone. Again. Fifteen days before Christmas. Piles of presents lay scattered haphazardly at the bottom of the tree, and I sighed again, knowing I was going to have to take most of them back because they were his.

One thing was bothering me about this entire scenario. And it didn’t bother me in a self-confidence sort of way, although her being prettier would sting for quite a long time. Christopher was a broke, starving “artist”, although the only art I’d ever seen him produce was mustard pictures on his sandwich before he slapped the other piece of bread down. He was unshaven ninety-percent of the time, and he spoke like he was an aging surfer. We didn’t live anywhere near a place where waves could be caught properly, but Christopher had a blinding white smile and the vocabulary of a beach bum. How had he managed to snag someone who appeared to be successful?

Why were women so susceptible to dating bums?

Or, a better question since I was currently analyzing the state of the world, why was [_I _]so susceptible to dating bums? I plopped down on my couch and stared at the ceiling.

Two years down the tube. I’d always liked him. I loved him, too. Not the heartbreakingly tragic love that so many of us like to watch on the television, but a warm, fuzzy pair of favorite socks kind of love. I would be sad when they finally wore out, but I sure did like wearing them when the temps dropped outside.

So why did my stomach hurt so much seeing him get into the cab and ride away?

Because you’ll be thirty in two months and you haven’t had a steady, fulfilling relationship since you were nineteen years old. I shut my eyes as I thought about him.

Jensen Knight.

I shivered as I allowed his name to cross my thoughts for the first time in years. Jensen was like Pandora’s Box.

Lock it away.

And never, ever, open the box.

But here, alone in my self-wallowing, I was Pandora, except not so seductive and hopefully not releasing all the evils into the world. I was the Pandora who innocently opened the jar and walked down a path much better left alone.

I hadn’t seen him in almost ten years.

Maybe I should call him.

I sat up abruptly, hyperventilating at that last thought.

Shut it down, Jess. Shut it down. Easy girl. I blew out a steadying breath, shook my head at the craziness that had just occurred in my own unfortunate brain and went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of cocoa.

Everything was better with cocoa.

***

After a sleepless night, I woke up groggy and not ready for the world. I went through the motions of a normal person, pulled on a knee-length skirt, a chiffon blouse, and a pair of knee-high boots and went to the mirror, where I immediately grimaced upon seeing what looked back at me.

“Jiminy Cricket,” I muttered.

Dark hair lay plastered against the left side of my face. The right side hadn’t fared much better. Hair stuck out in wild angles and mascara smeared down the side of my cheeks. I pulled off my blouse so I wouldn’t get it dirty and washed my face. My hair would just have to settle for a messy bun today. I didn’t have the energy to do much else with it. After slapping on some mascara and a berry-colored lip gloss, I put my blouse back on, nodded in satisfaction at the semi-human staring back at me, and grabbed a cup of coffee before I headed out the door.

***

The Book Wench stood like a stalwart tower in my own personal storm, beckoning me with the comforting smell of well-loved pages and the rich deep roast of the coffee beans I’d spent months sourcing before I found the perfect fit. I turned the key into the lock, close to tears over the events of the last couple of days but relieved I still had something I loved left. I stepped inside and shut and locked the doors behind me. We wouldn’t be open for another hour or so, but there was usually the eager bibliophile who tried to sneak in early. I dropped my belongings behind the counter and shrugged my jacket off before I leaned against the counter and tried to steady my rampant emotions.

I wasn’t even that sad over Christopher. I was just sad that I kept failing in my personal relationships. I wasn’t unattractive. Minus the mirror incident this morning. Makeup and a messy bun can fix most appearance ills. I was slim, yet a little bit out of shape because I preferred books over treadmills. My teeth were mostly straight. I could cook and bake like a champ. I was well-versed in all things literature, though I hoped I could be forgiven that my tastes ran more modern instead of classics. I couldn’t tell you a thing about Jane Austen, but I could definitely tell you all the professors who taught at Hogwarts. This made me super popular at parties.

Okay. Not really.

I used a breathing method I learned on YouTube which I hadn’t yet debunked. It worked. Either that or it was a placebo effect. Either way, I didn’t care. My heartbeat slowed and my thoughts cleared. Once I had another cup of coffee, I would be golden to start the day.

I reached behind the counter and grabbed my[_ I like big books and I cannot lie_] mug, but on my way to the coffee pot, I stopped and stared at the huge present sitting on top of a stack of new releases I had yet to shelve. I set the mug down and wandered over, excitement pumping through my veins.

I was a girl who loved presents. Yet another reason to be annoyed about my breakup.

No shiny things for you this year, Jess!

It sat, still and beautifully wrapped, and there was something about it that made me want to tear into it right away. My brows knit together. Not my usual reaction, but I had to admit whoever had wrapped this had a deft hand and a good eye for beauty.

It had to be Katie, my right-hand gal and bookseller. I hadn’t had the chance to call her with the news but knowing Katie she’d somehow surmised my personal situation like some kind of legit street psychic. She was uncanny with things like that.

I stared at the huge red bow on top of the present, my fingers itching to pull it. Attached to the bow was a note written in elegant script:

Make a wish, then open me. And may all of your dreams come true.

Super hokey, but okay. As much as I loved books, I was born cursed with a strong logic and a great aversion to things seeming too good to be true. But…it was Christmas and this was from Katie, the woman who believed in magic in all its shapes and forms. And who continually tried to get me to do that same.

With a shrug, I closed my eyes and the haunting devilish green eyes of Jensen Knight swam into view. I tried to swat the vision away mentally, but it stayed stubborn and true.

“I wish I knew what went wrong,” I said as I touched the note. “I wish I had the chance to make it right. I wish Jensen had loved me. I wish I had just…one more chance.”

I bit my lip as tears swam to the surface, and I struggled to stop them. With a sigh, I pulled the bow and the lid to the gift slid sideways.  I peeked in, curious. I gasped as a beautiful, jewel encrusted box swam partially into my view.

“Oh,” I exclaimed and lifted the box out of its cotton nest. These couldn’t possibly be real, could they? I tapped what appeared to be rubies and sapphires encrusted on the side of the box. They were cool to the touch.

Holy crap. Katie must have spent a fortune on this. I frowned. We were good friends, but we weren’t the kind of friends to buy each other such extravagant gifts. Even more curious, I set the box down. The top of the lid was engraved with a beautiful woman. Curls spilled down her bare shoulders and down the blue toga she wore. Her face tilted up in an expectation of…something.

Trepidation stole over my shoulders and sent a shiver down my spine. With trembling hands, I lifted the lid.

A howl of wind screeched through the store and blew books off of the shelves. I stood frozen in place.

“Damn! It’s windy out there!” A voice said as the door to the store slammed open and Katie stepped inside, shaking her boots off on the front stoop.

I let out a shaky laugh. It hadn’t been windy when I’d come in this morning.

I slammed the lid back onto the box and turned to Katie holding it. “I can’t believe you’d get me something so beautiful.”

A frown marred Katie’s perfect brow as she stepped closer to examine it. With a low whistle, she took it out of my hands and tilted the box to the light. Her curious gaze lifted to mine. “These real?”

My heart dropped to my stomach. “You didn’t get this for me?”

A merry peal of laughter broke from my friend. “Honey, I love you, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think we’re quite at the jewels and riches stage of our relationship.”

My shoulders sagged. “Someone left this for me.” I reached over and handed her the note. “With this.”

Katie frowned as she read it. “Did something happen?”

I shrugged. “I threw Chris out.”

Sympathy flooded Katie’s expression and she reached in to give me a hug. Thin arms flew around my back and her hair tangled in my nose, but her comforting scent of gingerbread and vanilla made it okay. She patted my back. “I’m sorry, honey. Two weeks before Christmas, huh?”

“Yeah,” I muttered.

“Sounds to me like he wanted to get caught.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me yet, but that sounded just about right. Last Christmas he’d bought me a holiday tote of cheap makeup and a subscription to Seventeen. I haven’t been seventeen for almost….seventeen years. I snorted in amusement. “Maybe.”

“Besides,” Katie said, “whoever left this for you obviously cared about you, even if it was a weird way to show it.” She tilted the box again and shook her head at the way the jewels glittered in the light. “Damn expensive way to show it, too. You could hock this for a pretty penny.”

There was something about the box that made me think maybe it never should have made its way to me. Not sinister. Just…otherworldly. I frowned as I watched Katie manhandle it. There would be no pawning. Maybe I’d take it home with me and research where it had come from. In the meantime, I hoped I could put this out of my head for a little bit and get on with my day.

I took the box back from my friend and tucked it into my bag. It should be safe there until I could get off work. Katie saw I was no longer in the mood to talk, so she busied herself with the opening tasks, and I finally made my way over to the coffee machine. I went through the motions of setting it up and sighed as the dark liquid finally poured itself into my cup.

I checked my watch after I took my first sip. Ten a.m. on the dot. Katie unlocked the doors and I tipped my mug to her. “I’ll be in the back working on new orders. Let me know if you need anything.”

Katie nodded, her face concerned, but she didn’t say anything else.

I cradled the mug in my hands and walked toward the back. I opened the door to my office and inhaled the scent of books and ink. This store was my home away from home, my haven and my savior. I’d taken it over after my grandfather had passed away and, while people were appalled at the name change to[_ _]Book Wenches at first, I liked to think Gramps would have been amused at the cheeky name. He’d deeded the entire thing to me, including the apartment upstairs. I’d never moved in, though, because Chris and I had been planning a move into the current apartment, so I’d cleaned it up and just left it empty.

Maybe soon I could revisit that. I didn’t want to keep paying for a larger apartment when I didn’t have to, and I loved this place so much I could see myself living here. Without going into the office to start working, I headed upstairs.

The stairs creaked with age and use, and I smiled at the sound. I used to play on these stairs when I was a child, and my grandfather used to always know where to find me by the inevitable sound of toys falling down the stairs. I smiled in memory as I stopped to fumble with my keys at the top of the stairs. I unlocked the door and pushed my way inside, the smell of the cinnamon candy my grandfather loved so much hitting me in the face. Tears pricked the back of my eyes as I looked around, my shoes kicking up dust on the hardwood floors as I walked through the entryway. I set my mug down on the hall table and looked into the living room area. All the furniture was gone, but everything still looked the same. The fireplace mantle was still the same reclaimed wood he and I had found walking through the woods one day. I remembered helping him sand it down and stain it with a deep mahogany color that stayed on his fingers for weeks afterward. And on my clothes, much to my mother’s consternation. The kitchen was over to the left, and I mentally added up the cost it would add to replace all of the outdated appliances. He had been a do-it-yourself kind of guy, and if it wasn’t broke, you shouldn’t fix it.

But, alas, I was a modern girl who liked pretty things, and the old olive green of the oven and microwave would have to go. The cabinets were a dark, solid wood but I pictured in my mind how they would look as an antique white.

A soft knock on the door interrupted my remodeling thoughts. Kate poked her blond head in, a curious expression on her face. “Jess?”

I made my way into the hallway. “Right here.”

The expression didn’t leave her face. “There’s a gentleman out there, adamant about seeing you.” Her lips twisted to the side. “Should I call the police?”

Confusion filled me. “Is it Christopher?” I asked.

Kate snorted. “If Christopher was an alpha male with an arrogance problem. No. I’ve never seen him before in my life.”

I sighed. Probably someone angry about how their recent release ended. I couldn’t count how many books people tried to return to me once they finished the entire thing and then decided they didn’t like the way it ended. “I’ll be right down.”

Kate nodded. “Hurry, please. He’s giving the rest of the customers the heebs and I think he’s making his daughter uncomfortable.”

I shook my head. “Following you down in a sec.”

Kate shut the door behind her. I spent another few moments checking out the two bedrooms, making sure everything was in order and made my way out to deal with the angry customer.

I picked up my coffee and grimaced as I took a sip. Cold. Few things in this world were more terrible than a cold cup of joe.

I took the steps two at a time until I made it to the floor of the shop. A tall man stood with his back to me, holding the hand of an adorable little blond-haired girl. They made quite the contrast. He with his dark hair and massive shoulders and she with her tiny little princess jacket and slight frame. She couldn’t have been more than four or five. I smiled encouragingly at her and stepped closer.

The man turned around, anger cast over every shadow of his handsome face.

My hand flew to my mouth, and I squeaked in alarm.

His expression widened and we stood there staring at each other like two idiots in a tornado, arguing about where to go for safety.

“Jess?” he breathed as he stared at me in shock.

I recovered first, I think. I wiped the shock from my face and replaced it with a mask of cool indifference. “Hello, Mr. Knight,” I said politely, but I couldn’t keep the frost from my voice.

He blinked. “Right. Of course.” And in those few seconds, he straightened to his full height and waved a children’s book under my nose angrily.

I sighed as I recognized it immediately. This book had become the bane of my existence.

“I don’t know what kind of establishment you’re running here, but books like this sexualize children before they are ready, and I demand an apology.”

One of my eyebrows rose of its own volition and I choked back the heated words sitting on the tip of my tongue. Instead, I tried for reason. Sort of. “Considering I am not the author of Trinity Goes to the Pageant, I think I have to decline. You are welcome to contact the author’s publisher and demand your pound of flesh there, but as a bookstore and an avid book lover, it is my duty to provide readers with the things they want to read, regardless of someone’s opinion.”

Jensen’s face grew purple with fury. “This tripe ended with my daughter asking me to buy her makeup. Makeup!”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. “I don’t recall seeing your daughter in here purchasing this book for herself. Therefore I cannot offer her a refund. If you purchased it and still have your receipt, I’d be happy to offer a one-time only refund on it. It’s not in my policy to refund already read books, but if it appeased you, I’d be happy to do this.”

He rolled his eyes heavenward and squeezed the place between his brows with his fingers. “A refund?” he hissed after a moment. “How about a bottle of kerosene and a match?”

During all of this, his daughter stayed silent, her brilliant green eyes staring up at him wide. “Daddy, I like this book. I want to keep it.”

Jensen sighed. “Pumpkin. No.”

She turned those devastating eyes to me. “Mommy says it isn’t a big deal.”

I bent down to her level. “Sometimes parents disagree on things, but that’s okay, isn’t it? Would you like to see some more books we have? Maybe your dad can switch it out for one you like better?” I glared up at Jensen as soon as his daughter looked his way for permission.

He gave her a short nod but returned my glare with equal fervor once she looked away.

“Good,” I said in as friendly of a tone I could manage, considering how much of a jerk her dad was. I offered my hand and she took it. The feel of her tiny warm hand in my own broke some of the frost I felt, and I led her over to the children’s section.

I wasn’t a fan of the pageant-centric book myself, but it had become a runaway bestseller, and local beauty pageants had been scrambling to keep up with the burgeoning interest ever since. I selected several books I thought she might like and that book-burner Jensen would approve of, and I sat her down at the large round table in the middle of the children’s section. I took a seat several feet away and watched as she looked through all of them.

She was simply adorable. Dressed in a frilly pink dress, white tights, and white patent leather shoes, she looked every inch the pageant princess her dad was horrified to see her become. Long, curly blond hair trailed down her back and glittered in the soft light. Her rosebud lips pursed as she studied one book in particular distaste. Who was she and when had Jensen had a child? I chewed on the side of my lip, lost in thought.

A disturbance in the air startled me as Jensen took the chair beside me. His long legs stretched out before him as he watched his daughter. I didn’t think it was possible, but he was even more devastatingly handsome than he had been ten years ago.

He clasped his hands in front of him and spoke. “I owe you an apology.”

I waved a hand, not trusting myself to speak now that he wasn’t angry anymore.

“Her mother,” his tone hardened, “buys her these things and dresses her up like a little queen everywhere she goes. It’s maddening.”

I studied the little girl. “She doesn’t seem too broken up by it.”

“That’s what makes me the angriest,” he admitted. “By all accounts, I should be happy she’s happy, but the fact that she wants to go down a path that’s so degrading —” He paused and I watched as his fists clenched and unclenched.

“A feminist?” I mused. “Color me surprised.”

Jensen fell silent for a moment, but I felt his gaze slide away from his daughter and onto my profile. “Things change, Jess.”

“Well,” I said and stood abruptly, not comfortable with the line this discussion seemed about to take. “I’ll leave you to it. She can stay as long as she likes, and when you’re ready to exchange your book, Katie can help you.”

I turned to walk away only to stop as Jensen grasped my hand. The same spark of attraction flared between us, and I stiffened.

“I just want to talk,” he said in a whisper so as not to disturb his daughter.

I forced a smile. “I’m sorry, Mr. Knight. I have other matters of business to attend to.” I pulled my hand away and fled through the store and up the stairs to the refuge of my apartment before the tears started to fall.

***

About an hour later, there was a soft knock on my door. It had to be Katie. I ran to the bathroom, wiped the moisture off my face and pinched my cheek for some color. I opened the door to see Katie standing there wearing an annoyed expression on her face. She was also holding a tray with two enormous cups of coffee and a pile of pastries.

“God bless you,” I said and opened the door wider to let her in.

“You have some explaining to do,” she said with frost in her voice.

“I do,” I admitted.

Katie bent down and plonked the tray down onto the hardwood floor. She eyed the dust on it but shrugged and sat down. I sat down beside her, not caring that my skirt would be dirty when I got up.

“Tell me all about that handsome, angry dish of a man,” Katie said right before she took an enormous bite of her pastry.

I took a deep breath and tried to best explain the enigma that was Jensen Knight.

2

Nine Years Ago – When Jess Still Had Terrible Hair

Books flew out of my arms and spilled around me in a circle of despair. Papers, pens, and notecards scattered in random directions. I lay in a crumpled heap with my skirt above my rear end, gasping for air, trying to catch my breath, and trying to get my hand-eye coordination back enough to cover up my mostly bare butt, now made frigid by the cool November air.

A hand waved itself in front of my face, and a dry, deep voice spoke. “I can honestly say I’ve never seen Star Wars look better.”

I groaned. I knew I shouldn’t have worn my Droid underwear today. Especially with a skirt. I took the stranger’s hand in my own and allowed him to help me up. I staggered a bit, still woozy from the tumble, but he caught me against his chest.

His very broad, solid rock-hard chest.

“Hi,” I whispered and looked up only to be staggered again by the brightest green eyes I’d ever seen in my entire life.

“Hi,” he whispered back, still holding onto me.

We stood like that for what seemed like an eternity until the sound of a throat clearing snapped us back to reality. I stepped away like I’d been burned and bent down to gather my things.

“Sorry,” I muttered.

The handsome green-eyed stranger bent down to help me. We locked gazes again.

“I’m Jensen,” he said and offered me a devastating grin.

I swallowed with a dry click. “Jessica,” I choked out after a moment.

“Hi, Jessica.”

I smiled, knowing my life was about to ruined in the absolutely best way. “Hi back.”

We spent the next five minutes cleaning up the results of my epic spill and the next year wrapped in each other’s arms.

3

“And so what happened?” Katie asked me, breathless, hanging on every word.

I shrugged. I wasn’t sure. “He moved without saying goodbye. I had a cryptic note left on my dorm room door. I never saw him again.”

Katie’s mouth gaped open. “Never?”

I shoved the pastry in my mouth. “Not until today,” I said with my mouth full.

“That jerk,” she groused.

I waved my pastry in agreement. But something about the whole timing of this thing really bothered me. As soon as I got home this evening I was investigating that pretty little box because suspicious things were beginning to happen.

Katie filled me in on what had happened with Jensen after I fled upstairs. She said he’d lost his angry edge, apologized to her, and bought his daughter every single title except for one she’d picked out for herself. He’d also left his number.

Katie leaned back, fished in her pocket and handed it over to me.

I stared at the numbers, numb. Why after all these years did he suddenly want to reconnect? I took the paper slip from her fingers and set it beside me. I didn’t plan to use it. I don’t think I could take getting my heartbroken all over again.

I’d put Jensen firmly out of my mind for years, and I hoped to keep him that way. There was no reason for me to revisit that pain and heartache. Especially two weeks before Christmas.

Katie handed me a napkin and we wiped all the sugar off our fingers. I headed back downstairs with her in order to finish out the rest of the day. I bent behind the counter to make sure the box was still there. It sat snug against my scarf, glittering unnaturally in the dim light.

I frowned at it. “This is all your fault,” I admonished it.

“Huh?” Katie asked from behind me.

I stood. “Nothing,” I said. “Just mumbling to myself.

She gave me a strange look. “Why don’t you go ahead and go on home?”

“Aren’t I supposed to be the one telling you that?” I said with a smile.

“I’m not the one with Twilight Zone stuff happening today. Go home. Get some rest. Start fresh tomorrow.”

Katie was smarter than she looked. I nodded and grabbed my stuff. “You have a point.” I headed toward the door. “See you tomorrow?”

Katie waved me away. “You got it. Try to enjoy the rest of the day.”

That would be difficult, but I nodded anyway and left Katie alone in the store.

Moments later, I was in my car driving back home, musing over the weirdness that was today. I glanced up at the light, noting it was a strong green and rolled through the intersection only to see the light change immediately to red, skipping right over the yellow completely.

“The hell?” I asked, puzzled.

A green motorbike slammed into the passenger side of my tiny little Corolla, sending the driver sailing over my car and me into an uncontrollable tailspin. When it stopped, and I stopped screaming, I felt all around myself, looking for blood and broken bones.

Nothing. I let out a shaky breath and wrenched open the door only to see it fall off the hinges and into the street. I hadn’t even been hit on the side.

What was with my life these last few days?

I stepped out of the vehicle, pulling my lightweight jacket closer around me and jogged over to the prone driver. My heart skipped a beat as he lay motionless on the side of the road.

I bent down and felt for a pulse. Strong and steady. I let out a relieved breath and put my hand on his chest. The man moved and I stepped away.

The visor to the helmet opened and a familiar beach bum grin showed through.

“Hey, babe. Pretty sure my leg is broken.”

Christopher had smacked right into my car and appeared to be mostly fine. While I was relieved at that, another factor sent my annoyance zone right into the rage zone.

“New bike, huh?” I asked. “When you didn’t pay rent this month?” I crossed my arms over my chest even as I pulled out my phone to call for an ambulance. “Nice.”

“Aww, babe, don’t look at me like that,” he whined and winced as he tried to move.

I sighed, and when the operator answered I told her my location and to send an ambulance, even though I wanted to kick the crap out of my ex-boyfriend.

I went back to my car to wait because the sight of Christopher’s face made me want to scream.

***

Because I try to be a good person even when I don’t want to be and because it was Christmas, I rode in the ambulance with Chris. He tried over and over to charm me, but I ignored most of his jokes. When we finally made it into a semi-private room, a young doctor came in and told us Chris had broken his leg in several places and would need around the clock care for the next six weeks.

I did not miss the hopeful look Chris cast in my direction. I smiled and thanked the doctor and when he left, I faced my ex. “You should call Christine and have her come over,” I said, my lip curling in distaste at the woman who’d been the source of my boyfriend’s infatuation.

His face darkened. “She left me.”

I was not surprised. “Then call your mother.”

“She and dad are on a hiking tour of Costa Rica.”

Of course they were. I stared at him, my hands on my hips. “Then you are on your own.”

That damned beach bum grin again. The one that used to make me weak.

“You can’t help me?” he asked hopefully.

“No,” I said, praying he wouldn’t keep asking because I was so very weak and couldn’t help my nurturing nature.

Unfortunately, Chris knew this about me. “I’m going to be in a wheelchair.”

“So?”

One eyebrow went up. “I don’t have a place to crash right now.”

“Call your brother.”

He shrugged one shoulder, a pitiful sight considering his leg was in traction. “His girlfriend just moved in and they’re in the honeymoon phase.”

“You cheated on me,” I accused. “Why should I help you?”

His face softened and sadness darkened the clear blue of his eyes. “Worst mistake I ever made. But help me through this and I’ll make it up to you.”

I sighed. “You are a horrible person.”

Chris knew he had me. “This is true. Help me to be better, Jessie.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Six weeks isn’t so long,” he said in a wheedling tone.

I glared at him. “Six weeks is forever.” And it was. Chris would be with me over Christmas, New Years and almost into February. This was a terrible idea.

A nurse interrupted then. “Excuse me,” she said to me. “Are you his wife?”

I snorted in amusement. “Never.”

The nurse blinked in surprise. “Oh, ermm.”

Chris rolled his eyes. “We’re engaged.”

“Nope,” I said.

The nurse looked back and forth between us and frowned. “Because of the area of the break, the doctor has recommended you stay at least a day for observation.”

“Thank God,” I muttered. It would give me some time to figure out how to wiggle my way out of this.

Neither the nurse nor Chris was amused by my dark mutterings. “Thank you,” he said, sending me an angry glare.

I smiled and bowed slightly. “On that note, I’ll leave you to the tender ministrations of Nurse Ratchett.”

The nurse opened her mouth in surprise and I left, super annoyed at the world, but especially at the strange turn my life had just taken.

Once I’d made it to the hospital lobby, I groaned in annoyance. My car was towed and I had no way to get home. I pulled my cell out of my purse and called a taxi, but before I hung up, a commotion at the entrance doors caught my attention. An ambulance screamed to a stop in the front and seconds later, a little girl was being wheeled in on a stretcher, covered in soot and dirt.

A little girl in a pink dress and patent white leather shoes.

Shock rooted me to the floor as they wheeled right past me. Jensen ran in after them and skidded to a halt in front of me, his panicked expression replaced for a second by abject confusion.

“Jess?”

I gave him a wobbly smile. “Is she okay?”

Instead of answering, he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me after the EMT’s.

4

I sat beside Jensen, dirty and exhausted.

“What happened?” I asked once the commotion died down. His little girl was supposed to be okay, but she would need several days of rest and would have to stay overnight in the hospital.

He shook his head in disbelief. “The toaster. The damned toaster.”

I leaned my head back against the wall. “My cheating ex-boyfriend slammed into my car, destroying it and breaking his leg in the process.” I gave him an exhausted smile, cognizant of how filthy I was and not caring. Not that he was in a much better state. He was streaked with black marks from head to toe. “And if that wasn’t bad enough, he has six weeks of recovery and I’m the only one available to play nurse.”

Jensen’s chest rumbled with a deep laugh. “She had two pieces of bread. I was standing right there watching her. As soon as we turned around to get a drink, flames shot up the damned wall. There was nothing I could do. It was almost like the fire had a life of its own.”

My thoughts drifted to the box sitting innocently in my bag. I was getting a sneaking suspicion, as far-fetched as it was, about exactly who that box belonged to.

“What are the odds?” I murmured.

Jensen ran a hand through his hair. “We won’t have a place to live until I find something new. The house was destroyed.” He laughed in disbelief. “A toaster. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

It was my turn to laugh because I knew exactly what I was about to say. But I hesitated. Did I want Jensen staying in the apartment above the bookstore? Not exactly. Not even a little bit. If it were just him, I’d probably keep my mouth shut, but he had a little girl.

“What’s her name?” I murmured.

“Marie.” A small smile played on his mouth.

“After your mother.” His mother was a petite little Italian thing, the exact opposite of his daughter. Apparently the blond looks came after her mom.

“That’s a pretty name.”

“Mmm,” he agreed. “Her mother lives in California. It’s hard to send her there for visits.”

I turned to stare at his handsome profile. “You have full custody of her?”

“You seem surprised.”

I shrugged. “Just uncommon, I guess.”

“She belongs with me.” There was steel in his voice. Enough to warn me to back off.

I stared at the little sleeping beauty, hooked up the oxygen mask. Her mother must be gorgeous.

“I have an apartment you can stay in,” I offered, wanting to cringe.

Jensen turned his surprised gaze to me. “No,” he said immediately.

“It’s empty. You’ll have to live in the bookstore. It’s upstairs.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t ask me,” I said.

“Jess -” he started and paused.

I stood up and dug in my purse. “Look, whatever happened in the past happened. I’m offering this to you because it’s close to Christmas, and no one deserves to be homeless or stressed out during the holidays.” I handed him the keys to the store and the apartment, wondering if I was making a horrible mistake. “It’s unfurnished, but you’re welcome to put whatever you’d like in there. As long as you take it with you whenever you go.”

“Jess, this is…incredibly generous. And I don’t deserve it.”

I slung the strap of my purse over my shoulder. “Yes, it is.” I gave him a hard stare. “And no, you don’t.”

He winced.

I left him sitting in the hospital holding his daughter’s hand.

***

Thankfully, the cab ride was uneventful. I don’t think my heart could have taken any more craziness or near-death experiences. I walked up to my apartment, unlocked the door, tossed my belongings on the table and collapsed onto the couch.

What a freaking day. I was exhausted both physically and mentally and just starting to feel sore from the accident now that my adrenaline was wearing down. I was going to be hurting tomorrow.

I stilled as I realized I was home. Alone. And I had time to look up that box. I sprung up from the couch, winced, and caught a whiff of myself as I walked to get my bag. I gagged and made a detour for the bedroom to shower first before I researched.

An hour later, I had pajamas on and a massive glass of wine, and I was curled on the couch with the box and my laptop. I stared at it, wondering if it was the source of all my new troubles.

“Here goes nothing,” I murmured.

The first thing I did was snap a picture of the box and reverse image search through Google. Not much came up. Some similar boxes, but nothing with the rubies and sapphires scattered through it. And nothing about bad luck.

My next search was the one I was nervous about. If I didn’t search for it and never found the answers, it couldn’t be true, right?

I sighed and typed my search into the box.

Pandora’s Box.

Thousands of hits came up including the lore on the box, but the first few pages yielded no real fruit. It wasn’t until I was finished with my wine and had poured a second glass that I hit paydirt.

What appeared to be a Greek Mythology fanfiction site yielded a crudely drawn portrait of Pandora’s Box. I sucked in a breath and picked it up to hold it up to the computer.

It was the same box.

“I’ll be damned,” I whispered. I set the box down quickly and scooted away from it. This thing was legendary for releasing terrible things into the world.

I hadn’t known any better when I’d opened it. So what had I unleashed?

I pulled my reading glasses out from my laptop bag and slid them on so I could better read the fanfiction and who it originated from.

[_ClothoFate’sMuse _]read the screen name. Weren’t the Fates and the Muses the same? I frowned. Maybe. I wasn’t sure. Clever girl to confuse me like that. I chuckled and read some of the work she’d written.

Two hours later, I sat back in my seat amused. Sounded like Aphrodite got into a lot of shenanigans. I clicked [_Message Author _]and typed up a cryptic note to her asking about the box.

Seconds later there was a knock on my door. I shut my laptop slowly and stared suspiciously at it.

No way.

I looked through the peephole and saw two women arguing. One was short, completely gorgeous and blond, and the other was also short with long chestnut colored hair and eyes that appeared to spark silver when the light reflected a certain way.

I didn’t open the door.

“Can I help you?” I said instead, my face still pressed against the closed door.

“Uh, hi!” the blond said in a cheery, yet nervous voice. “We’re from the fanfiction website!” I didn’t miss the way her mouth twisted when she said the word fanfiction.

I also didn’t miss her whispering something heated to the woman standing next to her.

“Impossible,” I said. “I sent that message less than two minutes ago.”

“Uhhh, yes,” said the blond. “We were at the coffee shop next door and we were so…excited we had to stop by!”

“I didn’t give you my address.”

A muttered curse came through the door and the darker haired one rolled her eyes. “I told you she wasn’t stupid.”

The blond sighed. “Can we please just come in?”

“Two strangers on the internet?” I asked in disbelief. “Hardly.”

The darker haired woman spoke then. “I will ask once more. Politely. Let us in.”

“You can’t scare mortals like that,” the blond whispered. “It’s against the rules.”

“I don’t care about the rules,” the other woman said.

I took a wary step back from the door. “I’m not letting you in.”

“Step back.”

The blond stepped in front of the dark haired woman. “Clotho!”

I blinked in surprise.

My door shattered in hundreds of pieces and wood fragments stopped short inches from my face before I had the opportunity to throw my arms up. The two women stepped inside. The blond woman was frowning and apologizing profusely. The darker haired one rolled her eyes.

“I warned you.”

Seconds later the door was intact and attached back to its frame and the two women were asking me for coffee.

I stood there, staring at them open-mouthed.

“Close your mouth, dear. There are stranger things than us out there.”

“Clotho,” the pretty woman admonished. “You are going to get us killed.”

Clotho grinned. “I’m a Fate and have few rules.”

The blond rolled her eyes. “I’m Aphrodite and apparently all the rules pertain to me.”

I turned abruptly and went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. I tried to still my trembling hands, but I couldn’t.

A few minutes later, I came back to the living room only to see the two strangers had made themselves comfortable. Clotho was holding the box and studying it, an angry expression on her face.

I set the tray of coffee down, and they went after it like rabid dogs. I picked my cup up and took a sip, staring at the women.

“I apologize,” said the blond. “My name is Abby. We didn’t mean to scare you, nor are we here to hurt you. We just came for the box.”

Clotho stared at Abby. “She’s already opened it.”

Abby turned wide eyes to me. “You opened the box?”

I nodded.

“Tell me everything,” Clotho demanded. “And start at the beginning.”

And so, I told the two women how the box had arrived and all the events that had happened afterward.

Clotho polished off her coffee and set her mug on the table. “You have to see it through. Pandora’s Box is not a toy, nor are the events something to trifle with.” She pinned me with her gaze. “What did you wish for?”

I swallowed hard, hesitant at laying my soul bare in front of two very strange people I didn’t know. I still wasn’t sure how they’d pulled off the door trick, but I knew my eyes hadn’t deceived me.

Abby reached over and patted my knee. “You wished for love?” she asked, although she seemed to already know the answer.

The scarier one stared. “Not quite. She wished for…” she paused. “A second chance?”

I nodded.

“Oh boy,” Clotho said.

“But I’m not sure I want it anymore,” I said quickly, wondering if this woman could stop the unfortunate events from happening.

But it was Abby who dashed my dreams. “Isn’t that always the case? Things start getting hard, and we back away like our wish was the plague. Sorry, darling, this is one wish you’re going to have to see through. Even if it doesn’t work out. You have to get through the issues. Tell me exactly how you worded your wish.”

So I did and when I was finished she stared at me in sympathy before whistling low. “Boy, you sure do know how to wish, don’t you?”

Clotho simply stated, “This is your chance to make it right and stop the ill wind blowing.”

Ill wind. “That sounds ominous.”

“Such is the nature of objects like this box,” she replied. “We think of it as ominous, but it’s a tool to harness our wishes. Things must fall if others are to stand upright.”

“Does this mean Jensen will love me?” I wondered aloud. “Because that isn’t what I intended. I don’t want to force anyone into anything.”

Abby shook her head. “You worded your wish well enough to escape that. Right now I think you should concentrate on clearing the air between you and see if that is enough.”

Clotho waved the box at me. “But I’ll be taking this home with me.”

“Please do,” I said.

Abby wrote down her phone number. “Call if you have any issues,” she told me, then snorted. “Or any issues weirder than the ones you have going on.”

I stared at her warily. “So all I have to do is try to make things right between us?” I asked. This seemed awfully simple.

Abby smiled. “It sounds simple enough, right?” She patted me on the arm. “But trust me when I say matters of the heart are never easy.”

I watched as they walked toward the door. “Who are you two?”

Clotho bowed, her hair falling over her face and sweeping down toward the floor. “I am one of the Fates.” When she stood back up her eyes flashed silver. “I am Clotho, spinner of the thread of lives.”

My heart stuttered and stopped for a moment as I gaped at her.

Abby was the next to bow. “And I am Aphrodite, Queen of the Seas. Sort of. And Goddess of Love.”

Before I could say anything, they disappeared in the blink of an eye.

“What the hell just happened?” I murmured to myself.

I needed another glass of wine.

5

The next morning, I entered the bookstore only to find Jensen and Marie already there. I blinked in surprise and remembered what I had told him. I was pleasantly surprised to note he’d already made an enormous pot of coffee and had placed chilled half and half in a bowl of ice next to it.

“God bless you,” I said.

Jensen winked at me from the staircase. “My pleasure.” He pointed behind him. “This is a beautiful place. Why aren’t you living here?”

“Life,” I said with zero elaboration on why I hadn’t moved in. “It was my grandfather’s place.”

“You can tell he loved it,” he said. “I’ll be sure to take care of it.”

I smiled. “Thanks, Jensen.”

“No, Jess. Thank you.” He turned around and plodded back up the stairs as I tried not to watch the sway of his butt.

This was going to be a difficult few weeks.

***

The day passed by with little interruption besides paying customers. Jensen and Marie stayed upstairs the majority of the day only to come down when Katie was starting to close. She blinked in surprise and turned questioning eyes to me.

“I’ll explain later,” I said in a low voice.

“Please do.”

Both were dressed for the cooler weather in scarves, hats, and jackets. He gave Katie a meaningful and long look before she got the message and made herself scarce.

“I’m taking Marie out for ice cream,” he said. “And me for coffee.”

Marie grinned, a cute little dimple appearing on the side of her face. “Daddy says it’s too cold for ice cream.”

I bent down and smiled at her. “It’s never too cold for ice cream.”

“That’s what I said, too!”

Jensen chuckled. “Thought you might like to join us.”

I blinked in surprise as last night’s visitors words came back to me. I had to make this right. But I couldn’t bring myself to be in his presence for too long because it made me angry. Why had he left me, and why had he never tried to reach me again?

“Um, thanks for the invite, but I have to work late tonight.”

I was totally lying, and from the look he gave me, he knew it, too.

“Those books won’t shelve themselves, huh?” he asked with a smirk.

“Right.” I gave a little wave and headed back over to the register. “Have fun.”

He lingered at the door. “Sure you don’t want to go?”

“Lots of work.” I motioned to a pile of paper beside me. I didn’t have any idea what it was, but it looked convincing enough.

He nodded and let himself and Marie out, being thoughtful enough to lock the door after him.

I put my head down on the register desk and groaned. How was I going to get through them living here?

Less than two weeks until Christmas.

***

Turns out I was much better at avoidance than I thought I was. The bad luck settled down for a little while, especially when I managed to avoid seeing Jensen for the entire day. It was when we were around each other that things got weird. It was like the universe screaming in my ear, hey idiot, when are you going to ask him the question you’ve been DYING TO ASK FOR TEN YEARS NOW?

And I always managed to avoid asking it, even though it put a lump in my throat and a burning in my heart.

I left early one evening to go check on Christopher. I was doing a good job of avoiding him too, but if I did it too much he put a guilt trip on me and moaned about how much his leg hurt. It was one week in and if he had been hooked up to a machine I might have pulled the plug by now. I was able to set him up by the television each day with a refrigerator I set up by the couch filled with drinks and sandwiches. He tried to guilt me into taking time off, but I flat-out refused. I didn’t want to spend any extra time there. It was bad enough I had to go back and sleep at home, especially since one night I caught him trying to sneak into bed with me.

I suspected his leg hurt a lot less than his ego did these days. I didn’t think I’d be able to put up with him for the entire six weeks without losing my sanity.

I turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door quietly. He slept a lot during the day thanks to the pain meds he’d been given, so I hoped I could sneak in, make sure he had what he needed and sneak back out for dinner.

The sound of moans coming from my bedroom alerted me. Oh God, what if he had fallen or something? Could he not reach the phone?

I dropped my bags by the door and rushed toward my bedroom.

A thought hit me as soon as I pushed the slightly open door further. What was he doing in my bedroom?

A woman sat on top of Christopher in the throes of ecstasy.

The moans were obviously not from someone in pain.

Anger rose in every fiber of my being, but I bit my tongue and stepped out before they saw me.

I was going to have to burn my bed later. I went into the living room, unplugged the fridge so his sandwiches would spoil and unhooked the cable box from my television and shoved it into my oversized purse.

I couldn’t face that jerk tonight. I grabbed my keys off the table and left the house as silently as I’d come in. I would deal with him tomorrow and shove him out the window if I needed to. I was sure it would count as justifiable homicide.

My face burned with embarrassment during the ride back to the store. Katie had already closed up shop by the time I returned, so I shoved the key in and pushed into the bookstore, tears streaming down my face. Tears of anger, embarrassment and regret.

Just the day before, Chris had told me he loved me and he wanted to give us another shot and for one horrible moment, I’d considered it. Just to keep from being lonely.

Jensen stood at the coffee machine, staring at me with concern.

“Oh,” I said and wiped the evidence of tears from my face.

“Jess?”

“Hi, Jensen. Sorry to bother you. I just came back here to grab something.”

I was getting good at lying to him.

Jensen shook his head. “Obviously.” He poured another cup of steaming coffee, dumped a little cream and sugar into it and walked over to hand it to me. “What happened?” he asked as I took it from his fingers.

“Nothing.”

He sighed and took me by the free hand. I allowed myself to be led over to the comfortable sitting area I had designed.

“Sit,” he demanded.

I sat.

He sat in front of me and stretched his legs out onto the old, scarred wooden table my grandfather had placed in here so long ago.

“Where’s Marie?”

His lips quirked. “You’ve become quite adept at avoiding questions. And me.” His green eyes searched my face. “Sleeping. She had a long day.”

“Oh,” I said and sipped my coffee.

“Jess, look. I know things are unresolved between us, but at one time you could tell me anything. What’s stopping you now?”

I stared at him in disbelief. “You left me. Years ago. Without a word. And you want to know why I don’t trust you?”

His gaze darkened then. “I had my reasons.”

I snorted. “And I was never important enough to be a reason.”

Jensen leaned forward. “What happened tonight?”

“And I’m good at avoidance?”

Jensen didn’t answer that question.

I sighed. “Christopher and another woman were screwing in my bed when I came home to check on him.”

His eyes widened in shock. “You’re going to have to burn that bed.”

I laughed with little amusement. “I’m going to have to figure out how to get him out.”

“Maybe try throwing him out the window?”

“Justifiable homicide, right?”

Jensen chuckled. “That guy sounds like a douche. Why’d you hook up with him?”

My mouth thinned. “Gee I dunno. Because I’m a weak-willed woman who needs a man to support her?”

He raised his hands in surrender. “The sarcasm is strong in you.”

I glared at him.

“Sorry,” he said, his expression sheepish.

I sighed and rested my head against the back of the thick loveseat. “He makes me laugh. He’s a kid at heart.”

Jensen said nothing but the air moved and I felt the cushion beside me depress. I opened my eyes to see him sitting beside me.

Danger, Jess! Danger!

I scooted further away from him.

“I owe you an explanation,” he said and didn’t try to move closer.

I nodded. “I think one is in order.”

He reached out and took the cup from my hands and set it on the table. Then he reached for my hands again and clasped them in his own.

I fought to keep the emotions off my face. The warmth of his hands enclosing my own was enough to start a fire deep in my stomach. I waited.

“I never should have left you. It was…complicated.”

“Life is complicated. But it doesn’t mean you get to run away from it.”

A sad smile quirked the side of his mouth. “You’re right. I was young and stupid.”

“So what happened?”

He squeezed my hands a little tighter. “I was going to ask you to marry me.”

My breath caught in my throat.

“But my parents didn’t approve.”

My mouth opened and closed a few times before I could formulate a response. “It still doesn’t answer why you left.”

“My mother and father were in the process of splitting up while we were together. My announcement of true love and marriage came at the absolute wrong time. There was a fight. A big one.”

I still didn’t see where he was going with this. “I don’t understand. Help me understand.”

“My father took the ring I’d bought and threw it into the woods. My mother told me to pack my things. And if I didn’t, I would have been thrown into the street because my father wouldn’t let me stay.”

“So you left?” I asked, numb.

“I had to.”

“But you could never call? Or write? Or any of it?”

He let go of my hands and dropped his head into his hands. “I couldn’t. We moved from state to state, rarely slowing down. Mom had an RV with no phone access. It was a different time.”

“You left me a note.”

He nodded. “Inadequate, I know. But how could I explain it?”

I stood. “You explain it with honesty.”

“Jess -”

“No. I can handle all of it except -” I paused for a breath, almost too angry to speak. “Except you never came back. Even when you could have. You moved on. You got married. You had a child for crying out loud!”

His face looked stricken. “I should have. I couldn’t. I didn’t know what you’d think of me.”

As I started to walk away, I turned to him once more. “I would have said yes, Jensen. And we could have made it work.”

I stepped into my office and shut the door behind me with a soft click. Then I turned on music from Spotify, rested my head on my arms and cried for the next two hours.

6

I woke up the next morning groggy and completely discombobulated.

“Coffee,” I groaned as I tried to get off the old, uncomfortable couch I’d shoved against the office wall when I first took over ownership. Once I managed to stand up, I stretched to get the cricks out and groaned again as everything in my body locked up in distress.

I felt like I’d been run over by a tractor trailer, and right that second, the events of last night came barreling back at me.

“Oh, Pandora,” I muttered. “You are a savage mistress.”

I patted down my hair, opened the door and peeked my head out to make sure I was alone. Thank God it was Saturday and we didn’t open until noon. I checked the wall clock. It was only eight. I blew out a breath once I saw the coast was clear and headed in to make a pot of coffee.

But I was too late and had I been more awake, I would have smelled the roasted beans.

Jensen leaned against the counter, eyes wary but unable to keep the smile off his face. “Good morning.”

“Go away,” I mumbled.

He handed me a steaming mug of coffee. I had to stop the urge to jump on him like a rabid hound and take it away. Instead, I reached my arm out as far as it would go so I didn’t have to step any closer to him.

One dark eyebrow rose as he held it just out of arm’s reach.

“Give it to me,” I demanded.

“I can’t,” he said, with a fake surprised expression on his face. “I. Just. Can’t. Seem. To. Reach. You.”

I growled, stepped forward to reach in, only to have Jensen snatch the cup back and curl his arm around my waist and pull me into his chest.

I froze in shock.

Jensen leaned in. “You’re going to listen to me for just a minute and then I’ll give you your precious,” he whispered.

I whimpered. Both from his proximity and my desire for coffee.

His chuckle rumbled against my ear.

“If I screamed would it help?” I grumbled.

“You’d scare Marie.”

“I hate you right now.”

“Walking into this bookstore was the best thing that could have happened to me. I haven’t been back in this town for very long, but I knew I wanted to come back and raise Marie here. What happened between us is something I cannot change no matter how much I try. But what I can do is try again. And promise you I will never walk away again, no matter who tries to take me.” His voice was low and urgent.

I squeezed my eyes shut.

“But as much as I am to blame, Jess, you never looked for me either. I woke up every day, sometimes in a new town, and wondered if today would be the day I saw you walking down the street. But I had no way to make it on my own. No job, no prospects and no college degree. I couldn’t come back to you and ask you to marry me with no way to support us.”

“We would have made it work.”

Jensen pulled me tighter. “Maybe.”

I rested my head on his chest. “I should have gone after you.”

“Eventually. We were young.”

I sighed. “Can I have my coffee now?”

“Do you forgive me?”

I hesitated. I didn’t exactly understand his reasons, but I knew how hard it could be to disobey your parents. But I’m not sure mine would have put me in that position. I finally nodded.

“Can we try again?” Jensen tilted my chin up.

I gazed into his emerald eyes and saw the hope and knew I couldn’t go through it again.

It would shatter me.

I pulled away. “I can’t, Jensen. I worked too hard to get over you. I can’t do this again. I want you to stay here as long as you need to -”

“We are moving in the next week. I found a house close to here.”

I nodded. “That’s good.”

Jensen handed me the coffee and I accepted it gratefully.

“I want us to be able to be friends,” I said, realizing how stupid it sounded.

“Friends?” he asked and snorted. “Jess, I don’t have friendly thoughts about you.”

I swallowed hard. “Right.”

He brushed past me and stopped and turned around. With one hand he pulled up a strand of my hair and felt it in his fingertips. “This is not over.”

Jensen turned and headed back up to the apartment.

I stood there breathing like I’d just run a marathon.

7

All was fair in love and war, I thought as I pushed open the door to my apartment. I was armed with a can of mace and a baseball bat. I knew it was overkill, but I wanted Chris to know I was serious.

He was lying on the couch fruitlessly trying to watch spotty television when I came in, snack wrappers and empty soda cans scattered around him. I was extra glad I’d taken the cable box.

His gaze went confused then wary as I rounded the corner and he saw my accessories.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Get out,” I said.

Chris blinked. “Excuse me?”

I stood straighter. “Get your crap and get out of my apartment.”

He sat up a little straighter and winced as he moved his leg, but I knew exactly what he’d been doing last night, so I felt no sympathy for him. He gave me a wary grin. “No can do. I have at least four more weeks of recovery.” He held his hands out as if to say whaddya do?

“You can recover somewhere else.”

Chris looked taken aback. “What brought this on, Jess? Come on, I’ve been a great house guest.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “Really? How so?”

“I’ve been quiet, unassuming. I rarely ask for anything…” His voice trailed off as he saw my thunderous expression.

“Don’t forget to say you never had any company over here,” I said in a deadly quiet voice.

His eyes widened and his mouth gaped like a fish. “I have...no idea what you’re talking -” He stopped abruptly. “You were here last night.”

I nodded.

He raised his eyes heavenward. “How much did you see?”

“Enough to know your leg must not be hurting too bad.”

***

An hour later I had Christopher sitting out at the front of my apartment waiting for a van to come pick him up. It was the same scene as a week ago. Just a different day. As I began to walk away, he reached out for me.

“Jess, I’m sorry.”

I pulled my hand away. “Sorry you got caught.”

A white van rolled up. “Maybe,” Chris said. “But I still love you, Jess.”

I said nothing and watched him, once again, ride away from me. If that was love, I wanted nothing to do with it.

8

I was alone. Again. It took me a few days to clean up the whirlwind in my apartment that was Chris. And a couple more days after that to get all of the evidence of him and our relationship out of our apartment. It required taking a couple of days off work, but I think it was a good trade-off. Plus, I didn’t have to see Jensen after his announcement that we weren’t over. I liked him. Heck, I think I way more than liked him but I wasn’t sure I was ready to jump right back into a relationship especially after the disaster of my last one.

He wasn’t ready to be friends, and that was okay, but I wasn’t ready to be a girlfriend again. So we were at an impasse. I didn’t have family locally and Katie was busy with hers, so Christmas dinner was just me with an enormous ham and multiple sides. I didn’t care that I was alone. It was Christmas, and I was going to eat until I couldn’t fit into my pants.

On an even lamer scale, I had gone out and bought myself a few gifts to put under the tree. Even though I knew what they were, I was still going to have fun unwrapping them. Actually, that wasn’t lame. It was [_super _]lame. But it was okay. I was determined to enjoy this even if I had no one to share it with.

I poured the hot cocoa I made out of the pan and into my mug, topped it with marshmallow fluff and took it into my living room. The Christmas Story was having a marathon, and I had a date with my television. I curled up, my feet warm in my ridiculous fuzzy socks, and flipped the television on.

It was just getting to the fight scene in the street when my doorbell rang. I frowned. The only person it could be was Katie. I set my mug down and padded over to the door poised to greet Katie, but when I opened it Jensen and Marie stood there. Jensen was armed with presents and a soft smile.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi, Ms. Jess!” Marie waved happily. “Can we come in?”

I opened the door wider, completely taken off guard. “Errm, sure?”

Marie strolled in like she owned the place. Jensen followed her a little more hesitant.

“Sorry. We just barged in.”

He was stating the obvious, but okay. I shut the door behind him once he made it inside and stared at him as he sat the bag down in front of the tree and started unloading it.

“What are you doing?”

“Spending Christmas with you,” Jensen said. He didn’t miss a beat and kept putting presents out like he lived here.

“What if I have family coming over?”

Jensen stopped. “Do you?”

I threw my hands up. “That isn’t the point!”

Marie chose that point to kick off her shoes and make herself comfortable on my couch.

I sighed. “You’re spending the night? That isn’t weird?” I gestured to Marie.

Jensen shrugged. “Only if you make it that way. Every year when she’s with me, we sleep close to the tree.” He pointed. “And since you have one, there’s no reason for us to break tradition.”

All the arguments died in my throat. He was here. It was Christmas. They were basically homeless, and I was acting like a heel.

“Do you want some cocoa?” I asked instead of arguing.

Jensen sent me a heartbreaking grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Marie sent a whoop of delight up in the air and beamed at me.

Hot chocolate it was then.

***

Marie tipped into dreamland about ten o’clock that night. Jensen and I were on opposite sides of the couch with her right between us. I gestured at all of the presents underneath the tree.

“She doesn’t believe in Santa Claus?” I whispered.

“Santa Claus is a marketing machine invented by retailers,” Jensen grumbled.

I blinked. “Actually Santa Claus was based upon a European monk named St. Nicholas who gave his inherited wealth away to those in need. The stories say he once rescued three sisters from being sold into slavery by providing their father with a dowry allowing all of them to get married.”

Jensen stared at me. “I’d forgotten how smart you are.”

I pointed to myself. “Books. Books everywhere.”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I never saw fit to tell her a lie. She knows the gifts she gets are from the people who love her. Not from a creepy guy in a suit at the mall with a revolving door lap.”

I snorted quietly. “You are such a cynic.”

“About some things. Not about us.”

“There is no us,” I said.

“Not yet,” Jensen said fiercely.

9

Christmas Day

I awoke to enormous green eyes and a wide, dimpled grin in my face.

“Ms. Jess, wake up! Presents!”

I blinked, bewildered until I remembered last night and Jensen shoving his way into my home.

I shut my eyes. “Five more minutes.”

A deeper voice intruded and made a [_tsking _]noise. “Now, now. Is that any way to treat your guests on Christmas morning?”

I pulled the covers tighter over my head. “Go away.”

With a tug, the covers were ripped off of me, exposing my flannel reindeer pants and a pink tank top. Jensen’s gaze went hungry, but I glared at him.

“If you wake me up, you must provide coffee.”

Jensen hooked a finger behind him. “Full pot in the kitchen. Let’s go, lazy.”

I reluctantly swung out of bed and followed Jensen out of my bedroom.

Presents were everywhere, and Marie had patiently waited to open them. She was a great kid. I sat on the floor with them and watched as they passed present after present to each other, but I didn’t feel left out. It was kind of nice watching them together.

Several minutes later, after there was a pile of wrapping paper five feet high next to us, Jensen passed me a small box.

I took it under duress. “I didn’t expect company, and I didn’t get either of you a thing!”

“Christmas isn’t about the gifts, Jess. It’s about the thought.”

“I have food,” I said lamely.

“I like that thought!” Marie exclaimed.

We both chuckled as I pulled the ribbon off the gift and slid the lid off, my thoughts drifting back to the box I’d so unwittingly opened a couple of weeks ago. The box that had been quiet ever since the goddesses took it, and I booted Christopher out of my life and my home.

I gasped as an aged, worn book slid into my lap.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

It was from England because here in the United States the book was released as the Sorcerer’s Stone. My wide eyes met Jensen’s amused ones.

“Open it,” he said.

I cracked open the book, only to see the scrawl of J.K. Rowling. I slammed the book shut and handed it back to him. “I couldn’t possibly,” I breathed, even though I wanted it so badly I could barely stand it. “This is worth a fortune.”

“I bought it years ago,” he admitted. “I knew I’d see you again.”

Tears pricked the backs of my eyes. It was the most romantic revelation I’d ever heard and it made the book nerd in me sigh in delight.

Jensen handed the book back to me, and I took it with reverent hands. “There’s something else in there.”

I flipped through the pages until a single sheet of paper fell out. Jensen’s messy scrawl was evident on the paper.

“Friends or something else,” it read, “doesn’t matter as long as I am with you.”

“Thank you,” I whispered. He understood me.

“You’re welcome.”

I reached over and ruffled Marie’s messy hair. She beamed at me. “And thank you, too.”

“It was hard to keep that secret,” she admitted.

“You did a very good job,” I said with a grin.

I stood up, my knees creaking in protest. “Coffee and breakfast. Everyone like cinnamon rolls?”

Both voices yelled out “Yes!” I smiled as I walked back to the kitchen.

Sometimes things don’t work out like we plan them to, but life is good at coming back full circle. I didn’t know what would happen with us, but I knew right now, we were going to be okay. Romantic or not, Jensen was a good person and I wanted to be around him. Yes, he’d hurt me, but that was life. The ones we love the most are capable of hurting us the worst. But life is also about amends and healing.

I turned back. Jensen was staring at me, his eyes an intense green and his hair messy around his head. He winked at me and motioned me to hurry up with his coffee.

Yep. Things were looking up.

10

Epilogue – Back at Aphrodite’s House

A scream of alarm alerted Abby to something wrong. She ran down the stairs, clutching her heart wondering what could have possibly gone wrong this time. Throwing open the door she saw Clotho standing in the middle of the room holding a box.

Pandora’s Box.

“Good grief,” she said. “You scared the bejeezers out of me.”

Clotho glared as she held the box with reverent hands. “I picked it up to put it somewhere safer and almost dropped it. It was sitting right here, disappeared for a few minutes, then just showed up again right out of thin air into my hands!”

“Don’t drop it,” Abby said, then winced at the withering glare Clotho was directing her way.

The lid was closed, but the jewels surrounding it gave off an inherent light.

“Its job is done,” Clotho murmured and carefully walked the box over to her dresser where she set it down gently.

“Poor Jess,” Abby murmured.

Clotho’s eyes flashed silver for a moment before a wide grin spread over her face.

“Poor Jess is doing just fine,” she said.

“You shouldn’t look willy-nilly into people’s futures like that,” Abby admonished.

“Normal people don’t use terms like willy-nilly,” Clotho fired back. “Besides, in about eighteen months we might find ourselves invited to a wedding.”

Abby grinned with delight. “A wedding. After all that.”

Clotho nodded. “Pandora may be a savage mistress, but if you can stand together in all of her misfortunes not much can tear you apart.”

“Good for them,” Abby mused, giving the box one last look before she left the room to finish making Christmas dinner.

About the Author

S.E. Babin is an award-winning author with a passion for writing books with a paranormal twist. Whether it’s romance or mystery, she loves taking the norm and turning it into the extraordinary. Her love of reading turned into a curious exploration to see whether or not she could write her own novel. Beginning with discarded pages of angsty novels and a slightly popular reimagining of Beowulf’s Grendel in her high school English class, Sheryl spent way too much time in the library, killing any chance of her becoming a cheerleader or anything even remotely cool.

http://sebabin.com/goddess/

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Mistletoe & Mayhem

Susan Murphy

1

The further the car drove from the airport, the heavier Callie Ashton’s heart sank. In the side-view mirror she watched as the city lights slowly gave way to the darkness of the sleeping suburbs and then eventually to the familiar pitch black of the countryside that sprawled as far as the eye could see. As the lights faded, they took with them all of her hopes and dreams.

‘So,’ her brother Cam, who had been dutifully sent by her parents to drive the three hours to collect her, said. ‘Bombed out in the big city huh?’

Callie groaned and shot him an unimpressed look. She was cross with herself when she realised how much he was enjoying her irritation.

‘Tell us what happened then,’ he pushed, hoping to rile her up as much as possible.

Callie momentarily contemplated whether to retaliate by asking why he was still living at home at thirty-two and sponging off of their parents, but decided it was just delaying the inevitable. She could fire back and point out all of Cam’s shortcomings, which might have made her feel a bit better about her own imploding life for a moment, but there was no going home without facing the barrage of questions that would be sure to hit her the minute her toe even crossed the line into town. At least this was an opportunity to start practising her responses. Surely by the time she was cornered by the usual collective of nosey locals, she’d have perfected it and gotten the entire explanation down to only a few short and sharp sentences.

‘I didn’t ‘bomb out’ as you put it. For your information we had a big case, a tough case actually, and it’s not easy you know. Law is hard. There’s so many possible outcomes and it doesn’t always go your way, and…’ She could hear herself rambling and her brother’s smug grin was enough to alert her to the fact that he didn’t believe a word of it. He was, if nothing else, enjoying watching her squirm.

‘Still doesn’t explain why you came running back here. I mean, didn’t you say you were NEVER coming back?’

Callie fell silent. She had no choice but to concede. She’d been awful and full of herself when she landed her dream job at a top law firm in Sydney and announced that she couldn’t wait to get out of Moonta Bay. But, reminding her of that right now, in her hour of humiliation, was plain mean, and totally Cam.

‘Shut up, Cam. Just shut up. Yes, I know I said that, but I was young and stupid and I hadn’t yet been completely stomped on by life and dumped onto the scrap heap as I have been now. Is that what you wanted to hear? Are you happy now?’

There wasn’t a lot that Callie knew she could count on in life, and her recent descent into complete failure had definitely taught her that, but being kept grounded and reminded not to get a big head was something her family would always be there for and they weren’t shy about telling her so.

‘Sort of.’ The smirk had returned. ‘You realise it was only three years ago?’

Callie could feel the burn that always seared across her milky cheeks when Cam was digging at her. From the earliest she could remember, he always knew exactly where to poke.

‘Fine, Cam. Fine. I screwed up a huge case, got pretty much demoted to dealing with parking fines, and then Zack announced that he was going off to save the world and I wasn’t invited. So, here I am, running home with my tail between my legs as a complete and utter failure and I’m sure that makes you soooooo happy.’

A rogue tear that she had fought so hard to keep trapped behind her steely eyes, escaped and fell onto her cheek. She swiped at it fiercely and then turned to look out of the window at the nothingness of her approaching home town. She refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

Cam reached into the backseat and produced two cans of beer. He handed one, still cold from his battery operated cooler, to Callie. She eyed it, and him, and decided that given the apologetic look on his face, she would take it, even if it wasn’t a decent cab sav as she was used to these days. She took in a mouthful and let the liquid work its magic, tingling through her veins and out to her wired nerve endings. She was thankful for the alcohol, in whatever form it came.

Just as the calm was finally setting in, Callie spotted the sign that sent her anxiety to a whole new level. ‘Welcome to Moonta Bay. Population 1,978.’

In that moment she became aware of two things. Firstly, she wondered if Hamish O’Reilly was still in town and, given that he had vowed he would never leave, she suspected that he was. And secondly, that she was entering Moonta Bay, in a Ute with her brother, with a tinny of beer in her hand.

She had officially hit rock bottom.

***

In the darkness Callie kicked off her shoes and stretched out her tired, cramped feet. They’d been jammed into high-heeled boots all day and had been screaming for relief for hours. She stared at them on the floor for a few minutes, remembering the shopping trip with her new work colleague, Jazz, which had led to the exorbitant purchase. She’d only just arrived in Sydney and started at the firm when Jazz, who was another fairly new lawyer, had convinced her she needed to ‘look the part’. It was the first time in her life she’d spent more on a pair of shoes than she’d earnt in a weeks pay, but it wasn’t the last.

Something pulled at her from the inside. A longing perhaps, or just a sense that those days might now be long gone. But it was fleeting. There was no way that she would let Moonta Bay suck her back in. No matter what happened or how long she had to stay, she would not go back to dressing from the likes of Kmart and Target, or ‘Tarjeit’, as her mother liked to call it. She had to stand her ground and be the person she had worked so hard to become.

Climbing into her old bed, she pulled at the fluffy pink bed cover her mother had turned down ready for her arrival. The feeling of the fake fur between her fingers reminded her of a much simpler time, a time when her dreams were still intact and there was an entire world out there to explore and look forward to. If she’d had even an ounce of energy left in her bones she’d have cried herself to sleep. Instead, she pulled the blanket up over her legs and silently thanked the Universe for the small blessing of a flight that had landed late enough to ensure that everyone would be sound asleep when she arrived.

Squeezing her stinging eyes shut, Callie tried to remember what it felt like to be in Zack’s arms. That too it seemed was fading. He’d been gone over a month already and although, in hindsight, she knew their relationship had been doomed, she still missed him and his unwavering friendship terribly and hated him for leaving her so abruptly. At the time, she had still thought they would get married eventually and have a family, but once he had made his decision to leave, there was no going back, even if he had promised he would come back for her.

She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, not realising until her mother’s voice was audible from the kitchen, that she had fallen into a deep sleep and not moved an inch all night.

Squinting against the sunlight that was teaming through the 1960s style venetian blinds that her mother thought were still the height of taste, Callie spotted the Vision Board she had made when she was seventeen, hanging on the back of the bedroom door. A smile formed on her dry lips. It caused them to crack, but she couldn’t stifle the grin.

The board was filled with the unbridled ambition and complete determination of her seventeen-year-old self. Pictures of a BMW sports car, a home that was likely owned by a celebrity and a cute brown Pug stared back at her. But that wasn’t the only pair of eyes staring. Next to the board, taped messily at the edges and slightly crooked, was a photo of her and Hamish, hand in hand and dressed for their High School graduation.

Callie rolled onto her back, filled with thoughts about that night and how Hamish had picked her up in his Uncle’s car so that she wouldn’t have to ride in one of the Utes from his parent’s farm. He had treated her like a Princess, pulling out her chair and opening doors for her at every opportunity.

The graduation had been one of the best nights of her life. Hamish was handsome, strong and genuinely a good guy and had, in the twelve months prior, only had eyes for Callie. Of all of the girls in Moonta Bay, including those who were much prettier and had their claws out for him, he had chosen her, again and again and she had loved every perfect minute of it.

The only question now was, had he ever forgiven her for breaking his heart?

2

The low hum of voices in the kitchen had risen to a chatty level. They were still somewhat muffled, but Callie could definitely make out her mother, Marjorie’s voice, chastising Cam for something, and her dad butting in about his burnt toast and how there was a possibility it could kill him.

Slowly getting her bearings, Callie was glad she had been too tired to even dream. What surprised her most was that she had fallen asleep so quickly. The usual time taken to reach that stage lately was around two to four hours. But, it wasn’t long before the painful sting of reality began to set back in with full force. She was back home. In Moonta Bay. In her old room. And in her old bed. It was as if the past three years of her hard earned life had never even happened.

Before the tears that were already building momentum could swell enough to overflow, there was a quiet knock at the bedroom door.

‘Callie, you up? It’s half nine.’

‘Yes, Mum, I’m awake,’ she said, blotting her eyes to avoid a heart-to–heart that would surely ensue if her mother spotted the tears. She pulled herself to sit, propped up against the headboard of the bed.

‘I’ve made pancakes and hash browns with eggs and sausage, your favourite.’

Callie smiled in spite of the fact that her stomach felt like it had turned completely upside down. She hadn’t eaten anything other than one piece of fruit and black coffee for breakfast for years.

‘C’mon,’ her mother said, sensing her reluctance. ‘Dad’s itching to see you. I had to stop him from coming in here at six-thirty this morning. You know how he is.’

Callie made a face. She did know how he was and that was the problem. Cam got every bit of his tact and manners from their father, although he hadn’t yet perfected the art of foot in mouth as well as Dad had.

She swung her legs to the side of the bed and with a swift, ‘I’m a tough, grown woman who can handle anything’ affirmation, got to her feet, simultaneously bracing for what she knew was the painful conversation that was about to follow.

‘Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in. If it isn’t my only daughter, the classy lawyer from Sy-de-ney, who hasn’t managed a visit home to see her poor old parents and slow brother in three years.’

Cam, who was standing at the sink scratching his backside, muttered something undecipherable, but it was enough to indicate he was insulted.

Callie perched on the stool at the kitchen counter. Although her father’s words sounded somewhat callous, she knew that he was actually being affectionate. Darcy Ashton loved nothing more than to get about town bragging to any man and/or his dog who would listen, about his super-clever daughter who was a big shot lawyer in ‘Sy’de’ney.’ In their family, the more sarcastic and insulting the comment, the more you were being told you were loved. What Darcy didn’t love, however, was that Callie was so willing to leave it all behind and never come back, even to visit.

Callie blew him a kiss and watched as her mother piled her plate high with enough cholesterol-laden breakfast to kill a small horse, or possibly a large one.

‘Dad,’ she began, taking a bite of some crispy bacon and letting her tastebuds enjoy the frenzy that it created, ‘how many times did I beg you and Mum to come and visit me? Work was crazy and I couldn’t get away long enough to make the trip home. You know that.’

Darcy raised one eyebrow, a skill he had mastered over the years to alert people to the fact that he thought what they were saying was utter rubbish.

‘Codswallop,’ was the expression that followed to make sure she understood. ‘You invited us because you knew full well that we would never come to that cesspool of a place and you didn’t want to come back here because you’d have to face poor old Hamish O’Reilly and his battered heart.’

‘Darcy!’ Marjory said, whipping his still half full plate out from under him as punishment. ‘Let her be. She hasn’t even had her breakfast yet.’

Darcy watched as his plate, and the eggs on it, moved further away from him. He knew well enough by now that if he wanted anymore breakfast he’d have to cut it out.

Cam plonked himself beside his father at the kitchen table looking terribly pleased that Callie was getting such a hard time.

‘Not saying I’m not happy to see you back. I am,’ Darcy continued, watching the plate his wife was holding, ‘I just want to see you happy and Hamish would have given you everything. Treated you like a real lady, he would have.’

Marjorie piled some extra eggs and another piece of toast onto the plate and returned it to Darcy who hoed into it before she could take it again.

‘Well, it doesn’t matter now anyway, does it?’ Callie said, stuffing in a rasher of the salty bacon, ‘looks like I’m stuck here for a while, so who cares?’

‘We all care, Callie,’ Marjory interjected, ‘we care a lot, don’t we boys?’

Cam and Darcy both nodded their agreement while Callie tried hard not to return to old habits like rolling her eyes and making snide remarks.

‘Anyway,’ Marjorie continued, ‘there’s plenty of time to catch up with Hamish and apologise, especially now that Zack fellow is out of the picture. Hamish is as handsome as ever, you know? And it will be wonderful to have the entire family together for Christmas. The timing couldn’t have been better really.’

It was no use. The eye roll could no longer be kept at bay and forced its way out in dramatic fashion, accompanied by a sideways head tilt and the all too familiar teenage groan of parental annoyance. Every ounce of class, maturity and sophistication Callie had spent years developing was now lost over one family breakfast.

***

‘Callie, C’mon, I want to get to the store before Janice Black does. She was after this one particular black jacket that I wanted and Lesley May’s daughter, Suzanne who works at Target, said that they were supposed to be getting some in, but the computer told her that only one was sent.’

Callie pulled on her boots and picked up her purse. The temperature was already hitting thirty degrees and it wasn’t even lunchtime. She scanned her case for something cooler to wear, but her corporate attire was not built for the stifling heat of South Australia in December.

‘What on earth are you wearing, luv?’ Marjorie asked, trying hard not to laugh. ‘You look ridiculous.’

‘Mum, this is top-end clothing, worth more than the entire contents of the lounge-room.’ She looked down at the mid-length skirt, button-up blouse and suit jacket and sensed that in spite of her immaculate taste, it was a little ridiculous for country town shopping.

‘Honey, we’re going to Kadina, not a dinner party with Oprah.’

Callie frowned. ‘I haven’t got anything else. Everything you wear in Sydney has to look good, especially when you go out shopping. Some stores won’t even serve you if you look like you can’t afford what they’re selling.’

Her mother looked more confused than usual. ‘But, if you’re going in to buy something nice, why do you already have to be wearing something nice? Isn’t that….’ She gave up half way through, deciding that what they did in Sydney was just something she would never understand, or, in fact, care to.

‘I’ll grab something more casual if I can find a decent boutique, but I’m not buying anything at Target,’ Callie said, grabbing the keys from her mother’s hand. ‘We better get going before Janice snags that top.’

Marjorie was out the door and in the Ute in a flash. Callie slid in behind the wheel and felt a slight rush, which took her by surprise. As much as she would never admit it, even to herself, she missed thrashing about in the paddocks and tearing along the coast line, with the family dog, Bluey, in the back and the wind lashing her wild hair against her cheeks. She could hardly remember how free she had felt in those moments, but the very act of sitting at the wheel of the Ute brought back some of those feelings in a rush that almost brought her to tears. Where had she been? The real her, the Callie Ashton who was tough, ambitious, a tomboy who was afraid of nothing and no one?

When she pulled into the carpark of Target Country in Kadina, a fresh wave of anxiety spread its way through her. That anxiety gave way to horror when her mother held up set after set of matching tracksuits in colours like brown and beige, wide brimmed hats and checked cotton shirts.

‘Surely that’s a man’s shirt,’ Callie protested at the suggestion she buy a short-sleeved shirt in blue and covered in what looked like pictures of wheat or barley.

‘I think it’s cute,’ Marjorie insisted, ‘You had one like this when you were little.’

Callie vaguely remembered being forced into the hideous brown number that had some even more hideous pattern strewn all over it. Her body shuddered in response. And just to make matters worse, the store seemed to have the Michael Buble Christmas carols CD playing on continuous repeat. The very one that Marjory loved and could not resist singing along to.

Callie let out a groan that caused her mother’s shoulders to tense and her face to take on a determined look. She rustled through every – single – rack, until Callie, who was desperate for it to come to an end, agreed to her mother buying a blue and grey velour tracksuit, a pair of blue jeans, 2 pairs of khaki shorts and some brown boots for out on the land, that Callie swore she would never in a million years wear. She did however settle on some thongs and bathers for the beach. They left the store, having spent under $100 and with an arm full of items Callie wouldn’t have been seen dead in back in Sydney.

The elation Callie felt at getting around the store for over an hour without incident, or running into one of the many nosey, bored, middle-aged women of the Copper Coast, was short-lived when they smacked head-on into Janice Black coming through the door as they tried to exit. The look of pure delight on Janice’s face was evident when she realised that the perfect opportunity to poke her nose in and stick it to Marjorie at the same time had just presented itself.

‘Oh, Callie Ashton, how lovely to see you back in your sweet little home town.’ Her smirk was enough to send Callie’s blood cold. Janice had the most uncanny ability to completely insult and belittle you while sounding sickly sweet and delightful. Callie had often thought how Janice’s tactics would have been so useful in the courtroom and in the tough world of corporate and criminal law. Instead she saved it for all of the poor souls that inhabited Moonta Bay (and surrounding towns) and anyone else that was unlucky enough to cross her path.

‘Hi Janice,’ Callie smiled politely when her mother jammed her elbow into Callie’s side.

‘Marjorie, fancy seeing you here too. It’s just so hard to find the time, isn’t it, when you’re dealing with, well you know, Cam’s situation and now this.’

Marjorie had all but turned white. She’d never been good at dealing with bullies and Janice had been tormenting her since junior high school.

Callie, seeing her mother’s distress, jumped into lawyer mode. She, on the other hand, was used to dealing with the likes of Janice. ‘Well, Janice, we must go,’ she said in the professional voice she usually saved for the toughest judges in court. ‘You see we’re planning quite an elaborate Christmas Eve dinner party, you know, the sort that people throw in Sydney, not like your usual small-town dig. It’s going to take soooo much preparation and we’re having some special items brought in from the city so we need to be there to receive them.’

Callie felt her mother’s hands clutch her arm tightly for support, while Janice, clearly annoyed by being put in her place, eyed them suspiciously.

‘In fact,’ Callie added just to put the finishing touches on, ’Mum’s just bought a fabulous new black top to wear for it. It was the only one in all of the Copper Coast apparently.’

With a huff, Janice Black, who usually kept the upper hand and ruled the gossip clan with an iron fist, stomped off muttering something that suggested she was not at all impressed.

‘Callie, what on earth?’ Her mother gasped, struggling to stifle her pleasure at what had just taken place. ‘I can’t pull together a party in five days. Not to mention that Janice will be ropable. We’ll pay for this. You know that, don’t you?’

Callie knew she was right. Janice would be calling her ‘people’ and waging some kind of uprising against them within the hour, but she didn’t care. After the types she had come up against, and won against, back in Sydney, Janice was about as scary as a kitten showing its tiny claws.

‘We’ll be fine, Mum. We’ll just get the house looking all Christmassy and invite some friends around. It’ll be fun.’

Her mother gave her a questioning look, but seemed to accept the idea.

Basking in her moment of glory and the feeling of control and power that it brought with it, Callie hopped back into the Ute and wound down the windows.

‘By the way, did I tell you that Mel is back in town? She’s been back for a couple of months now.’ Marjory lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Divorce. The husband was a cheater.’

‘Divorce isn’t a dirty word, Mum. You don’t have to whisper. I’ll have to catch up with her. I miss her you know? She’s one of the only things I did miss about this place.’

Marjory gave her daughter and questioning look.

‘And you and Dad of course,’ she quickly corrected.

Marjory repeated the look.

‘Yes, okay, okay, and Cam. But only a little bit.’

The familiar summertime burn of the steering wheel and the scorching hot metal of the seatbelt was yet another reminder that she was home, and in spite of what she had just said about not really missing anything, there was something comforting and strangely fantastic about it. That was until she spotted a new black dual-cab truck pulling into the hardware store across the street and a strikingly gorgeous Hamish O’Reilly, hopping out.

Callie’s breath caught in her throat. Her mother followed her line of sight until she too spotted him.

‘I told you, didn’t I?’ Marjory said. ‘He’s not a boy anymore, and boy is he one heck of a man.’

Callie stared in shocked silence. The young man she had left behind three years ago had grown into the kind of man that, even at a distance, women stopped to stare at. Broad shoulders, large, farm-bred arms and sandy hair that he raked his hands through with enough sex appeal to cause any good woman to go weak at the knees.

Callie started the engine and turned her head away. There was a feeling inside her, the same one she had felt the night before. It wasn’t exactly regret-- she had loved her time in Sydney before everything fell apart-- and it wasn’t exactly longing. How can you long for something that you haven’t known for so long? It was something else, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Either way, she wasn’t going to hang around to find out.

3

Callie slipped into a pair of black slacks and a white silk shirt. It was too hot for anything with sleeves, but pants were essential, given that she hadn’t shaved her legs since leaving Sydney. She pulled her hair up high and wrapped a band around it to hold it in place. She stared in horror at the reflection in the mirror.

Only a few weeks ago, she had been standing in front of Judge Maxwell, arguing a case involving a low-level Mafia-affiliated career criminal, while dressed in Dolce and Gabbana.

Slumping onto the bed, her eyes again found their way to the photo of her and Hamish. Her mother was right, he was definitely no longer the boy in the photo and although he’d been handsome then, the three years she had been away had been more than kind to him. One of his arms alone looked as if it might be as big as the top of her thigh. The white t-shirt he had been wearing, even at a distance, showed off how muscular his body was beneath the fabric.

‘Stop it, just stop it! It was a lifetime ago.’

Getting to her feet to avoid driving herself any crazier wondering ‘what if’ and what could have been, she grabbed the keys, hopped into the Ute and headed towards town. Sugar, and lots of it was needed as well as some alcohol, something strong. There had to be somewhere in this Godforsaken town that could ply her with both.

She ranted the entire way about how she should never have come back to Moonta Bay. Coming back was just opening up old wounds and hurt feelings, but once she hit Main Street, it was impossible to stay bitter. Sprawling green grass on one side and the crystal blue of the ocean on the other brought with it a calm that only this town could give her. This time of year, when summer was well underway, but not yet scorching enough to turn the grass brown and crunchy, was Callie’s favourite.

Dreaming of hours spent lying on that grass and ice creams at the Foreshore Deli, Callie spotted something new further down the road. A bright yellow sign, with a blue ‘Billy’s Bakery and Cake Shop’ caught her eye and lured her in. With her foot hard on the accelerator, she pulled up outside the shop with a squeal of the brakes loud enough to turn the heads of dog walkers nearby. She made her way into the shop and slotted into a booth in the back corner.

‘What can I get you?’

The deep voice startled Callie, causing her to jump and let out a little yelp.

‘Sorry, honey. Didn’t mean to freak you out. What’s got you so jumpy in a cake shop?’

Callie scoffed at the question. Clearly ‘Billy’, if he was Billy, wasn’t aware that it was impolite to pry into the personal lives of his customers while taking their order, nor was he aware that calling a grown woman you weren’t in an intimate relationship with, ‘honey’, was rude as of about three or four decades ago.

‘Cake, thank you, ‘honey.’ Something with plenty of cream…and jam, lots of jam.’

Billy gave her a smirk, realising her contempt for his use of the word, and went back to the counter. As he pulled a Kitchener bun the size of his hand out of the cabinet and added an extra dollop of jam, he watched as the young woman fussed about in the booth, moving further into the corner and lowering her sunglasses as if she was in the witness protection program. Maybe that would at least explain why she was so jumpy.

He returned to her table with the bun and a can of Coke. When he set them down in front of her, she eyed him suspiciously. ‘I didn’t ask for a Coke,’ she said, pushing it back toward him.

‘I know that, but you looked a bit hot and bothered, so I thought you could use a cold drink.’

Callie smiled and accepted. ‘I don’t normally drink coke, but I guess just this once won’t hurt.’

The truth was her tastebuds were already working into a frenzy at the very thought of the approaching sugar load. Her life in Sydney had been all but sugar free and Zack was a vegan so she’d pretty much inadvertently adopted that lifestyle, but with a cream bun and coke in front of her, it was time to let loose.

As she stuffed piece after piece of cream-laden bun into her mouth and let the sweet sugar and soft, fluffy texture bring the comfort she had hoped it would, Callie’s joy was interrupted by a buzz inside her purse. She reached down, licking her fingers of residue, and plucked the phone from her bag. When she saw who the message was from, she sucked backed some of the powdered sugar and almost choked.

Billy stopped at her booth again and asked if she was okay. Still coughing, she waved him away with a flapping hand.

Seemingly unimpressed with being shooed like a buzzing fly, he went back to the counter and watched as the strange woman ate like a beast and made huffing and groaning noises into her phone. Billy, never one to pass up the opportunity for a bit of fun, headed back over.

‘Can I get you some more bun? Or a cake, we have a large wedding cake that was cancelled today at the last minute.’

Still staring at the message on her phone, Callie again waved him away, agreeing with whatever he had just said so he’d get lost. Without realising it, tears had welled in her eyes. The words in Zack’s message sounded so cold. There was no hint of affection, no care for how she was feeling or doing, just an update of his travels and how many wells he had dug in Africa. She wanted to hate him. She wanted to scream and cry and tell him that he should have put her and their relationship before helping the poor, but even in her own head it sounded awful and selfish. The truth was that Zack was doing something important. He was making a difference in people’s lives and really changing this world, unlike her, sitting in a bakery in Moonta Bay, stuffing herself with cream and bun. Deep down she admired what Zack was doing, but an invitation to go with him would have been nice, even if she wouldn’t have taken it.

She had just hit send on a return message of, I’m happy for you when Billy lumped an oversized wedding cake onto the table in front of her and slotted himself into the booth.

Horrified, Callie stared at him with disbelief. Was he trying to insult her? Hurt her feelings? Sure, she was scoffing cake like she hadn’t eaten in weeks, but that didn’t mean she was hopeless or wanted to devour an entire wedding cake! Or was he trying to send her a message? That this was the only wedding cake she’d ever have in front of her?

Steam all but poured out of her ears. She’d tear strips off of him and put him in his place, the rude, arrogant sod! But instead she burst into tears. Uncontrollable tears that led to Billy turning red and making a dash for a box of tissues.

With closing time approaching, the store was now almost empty. Billy sat back in the booth and stared at the sobbing woman. ‘I guess I should apologise. I thought it was pretty funny though, didn’t you? I had no idea you’d start bawling.’

Callie blew her nose and blotted at her now-swollen eyes. She eyed him with disapproval, still a tad annoyed. ‘For the record, I wasn’t ‘bawling’ as you put it, because of you. It was something else entirely.’

Billy seemed to like the fact that she wanted him to know that he didn’t upset her. ‘So what was it then? Idiot boyfriend dump you?’

‘Just get me a fork at least,’ she said, ‘this cake won’t eat itself.’

Billy returned with two forks and a couple of soft drinks. Without thinking at all, Callie spent the next two hours pouring her heart out to the stranger who had insulted her and in return, she listened to Billy’s story about the long road it had taken to fulfilling his dream of opening a small town bakery. By the time they finished, half the cake was gone, they’d gotten through two cokes and three coffees and Callie was sure she’d need a forklift to extract her from the booth and take her home.

‘Thanks for listening,’ she said, squeezing from the booth.

‘Anytime, there’s plenty of sugar here, whenever you need it.’

Callie smiled and headed out to the Ute. She wound down the windows and released the button on her pants, vowing to only eat salad from now on and spend the night in front of the telly doing squats with a box set of Sex and the City. When she pulled into the driveway, however, those plans shattered into a million pieces and so did she. A black truck with the words ‘O’Reilly Farm’ on the side was blocking her.

Her heart pounding in her chest, she pulled off the gravel drive onto the grass and around to the side of the house. She’d climbed through her bedroom window a thousand times in her teens. It was easy, and there was no way in hell she was going in that front door to face Hamish looking like she’d been dragged through a paddock by the back of her pants.

Closing the Ute door as quietly as possible, she made it to the bedroom window and slowly lifted it. When it slid up easily, she gave herself an invisible high-five. Hooking one leg over the window sill, she hoisted herself through sideways and plonked backwards onto her bedroom floor … right at Hamish O’Reilly’s size twelve leather boots.

Her mother’s gasp was really quite measured, given the situation and Callie appreciated her not recoiling in tears.

‘Callie?’

Hamish’s voice was deeper than she remembered, but just as caramelly smooth. He held out his hand and helped her to her feet.

For a brief moment, she thought there was some possibility of redeeming herself and making a reasonable impression, but as her mother moved in beside her and began pulling the cobwebs from her hair, she decided there was little point.

‘Hi Hamish. Lovely to see you. I’d love to stay and chat, but given my entrance and the state of me, I think I better dash to the shower.’

Hamish looked more concerned than amused. He’d always been the more serious type. ‘Wait, I think you’ve hurt yourself.’ He reached forward and touched Callie’s cheek.

In spite of the fact that her mother was still picking at her, the spark of Hamish’s touch sent tiny shock waves through every inch of her. Instinctively, Callie reached up to feel her face for injury, but realised, at the same time as Hamish, that it was in fact jam that was smeared across her cheek, as well as some icing sugar remnants. He smiled and in true gentlemanly fashion, stepped aside for Callie to pass.

Without further word from any of them, Callie disappeared into the hallway and then the bathroom. She remained there until enough of her humiliation had washed away. It was at least two hours and then some.

***

‘Well you certainly made an impression,’ Marjory said when Callie planted herself at the kitchen table.

‘Why was he even here? You could have told me or warned me or something.’ She knew that what she was saying was unfair before it even left her lips.

‘Callie, honey, I love you, but honestly. Climbing in the window? Weren’t you done with stuff like that in your teens? And Hamish was here because he had offered to give me a heap of leftover paint he had from when he re-decorated the farm house last year. I ran into him a few weeks ago and we got to talking and he mentioned it. As much as you’d like it to, the whole world does not revolve around you.’

This was one of her mother’s go-to phrases when she wanted one of them to feel like they were being ridiculous or selfish. It always worked a treat, especially on Darcy.

‘Yes, okay, fine, but it would have been nice to see Hamish for the first time under better circumstances, like perhaps when I wasn’t falling in a window, covered in filth and with jam and sugar all over my face.’

Marjory giggled, but caught herself when Callie glared. ‘Well, you will get the chance. I’ve asked him to the Christmas Eve party. And if you’re serious about making an impression, you’ll have no better opportunity.’ She shot her daughter a sly look.

‘What are you planning, Mum? Do not do anything embarrassing, I’m warning you.’

Marjory held up her hands in defence. ‘Just a little mistletoe here and there, in case anyone feels the mood to take advantage of them.’

Callie grabbed a carrot from the pile her mother was peeling in the hope of countering some of the sugar she had ingested earlier. She could still feel it all swirling around in her stomach.

Mistletoe? Maybe. She wasn’t sure that she even wanted to get caught under a piece of mistletoe with Hamish. He was the past, and somewhat of a painful past. Was it ever wise to go backwards? But why did he have to be so damn handsome?

Callie went back to her room and stared at the picture of the two of them. She remembered the look on Hamish’s face when she told him she was taking the job in Sydney. Even now that memory had the power to buckle her legs and tighten her stomach. No, as much as he was absolutely gorgeous and smelled amazing, boy had he smelled amazing, Hamish O’Reilly was her past and re-inventing and re-establishing herself as the powerful and independent lawyer, who didn’t need a man in her life, was her future. Regardless of what her mother thought, the mistletoe would have to be for someone else. Unless, of course, Hamish made the first move, then she couldn’t possibly be held accountable. She’d just have to kiss him back. That was a given.

4

‘I’ve got nothing to wear! All of my really good stuff is in storage back in Sydney,’ Callie grumbled.

‘Well why don’t you just get it sent back here? We can get it all set up in the spare room, or the shed.

Callie imagined all of her designer corporate suits and one-of-a-kind dresses hanging out in the shed while Cam tinkered with his HQ Statesman and revved the engine continuously without even opening a window.

‘I need to leave it there for now. I’ve paid it up for 6 months.’

Callie hated lying to her mum, but the truth would upset her and there was enough drama going on with this party to add anymore right now. The truth was that she didn’t want to have it sent. Having it sent would mean that she had given up on the dream of returning to Sydney, and she definitely had not.

‘We could go and have another look around if you like,’ Marjory suggested.

Not one shop in all of the Copper Coast had something decent. They had already checked out every single one except for the frock salon, Joylene, which would have been perfect if she was eighty and sporting a blue rinse. No, if she was going to make an impression on Hamish, which she wasn’t really trying to, but if it happened in the process of looking amazing, it would obviously be a bonus. She’d have to find something fabulous.

Giving up on the hopeless fashion situation for now, she grabbed her keys. ‘I’m heading over to Mel’s mum’s house to see if I can catch up with her.’

She pulled into Mel’s mother’s driveway, just as her friend was getting in the car.

‘Callie, my gosh, what are you doing here?’ Mel squealed, rushing to the car door to give her a hug. ‘I can’t believe it. I’m so glad to see you.’

Mel’s eyes had welled. Callie pulled her best friend in tight. ‘I’ve missed you too. Why haven’t we talked? It feels like forever.’

‘Let me look at you. You look fantastic.’ Mel said, pushing Callie back to arm’s length to take in her navy pencil skirt, fitted blouse and Jimmy Choo heels.

‘I’m kind of overdressed for Moonta Bay, I know. Mum thinks I look ridiculous, but I refuse to wear a velour tracksuit.’

Mel laughed, ‘well I think you look gorgeous.’ A loud banging sound came from the inside of Mel’s car. ‘Sorry, Hun, I’m just taking Dally to cricket, he’s six now. Can you believe it?’

Callie went over to the car window to peer in. Looking back at her were two sets of eyes. ‘Have you got two? I had no idea.’

‘Yep, that’s Georgia, she’s two and a half. And a total handful. Look I really want to catch up, but I have to take off. Can we make a time? When are you free?’

‘Come to a Christmas Eve party at my parent’s house. It’ll be fun and we can catch up properly.’

Mel looked worried. ‘Will Cam be there?’

Callie had hoped that the awkwardness after her brother and Mel had dated in high school – and broken up quite publicly, might have worn off by now. ‘Yes, Cam will be there, but I promise, he’ll be outside with his mates all night and nowhere near us.’

Mel hopped in the car and reached out her hand to squeeze Callie’s. ‘Definitely, I’d love to. I’ll have these two rug rats though.’

‘The more the merrier.’

‘Have you seen Hamish?’ Mel asked with a hint of cheekiness to her tone.

The question caught Callie totally off guard. She shifted on her feet and felt her cheeks burning red.

‘I’ll take that as a yes!’ Mel called from the window as the car disappeared down the driveway and out onto the road in a cloud of dust. ‘Love ya, miss ya,’

Suddenly, being stuck in Moonta Bay was feeling a whole lot more bearable. Unfortunately, the happy feelings led Callie straight back to Billy’s Bakery for another sugar fix celebration. Knowing that Mel was back home too was definitely worth the extra weight.

Callie pulled into the same parking spot at Billy’s and even managed to snag the same booth. She picked up a menu and browsed the options, sure that Billy had already seen her and simply not bothered to even say hello. In a small town it was rude not to acknowledge your customers, especially ones you had spent two hours with, baring your whole life story.

Billy, who was busily preparing delicious croissants from scratch, watched her enter, dressed as if she was on her way to the opera, and slot into the same spot without even glancing at him. He noted her deliberate effort not to acknowledge him and made his way over.

‘Afternoon, what can I get for you today, darlin’?’ He put extra emphasis on the darlin’ part, given how much calling her ‘honey’ had razzed her up last time.

Callie put down the menu and cleared her throat. ‘Well, sweet cheeks, how ‘bout you shake those buns right on over to your kitchen counter and rustle me up a sweet old chocolate croissant and a latte. Skinny, thanks.’

Billy smirked, seemingly pleased that rather than being irritated, she had chosen to play the game. He spun around, headed to his counter, wiggling his hips appropriately, and returned with the desired items.

‘Not sure that I really achieved the bun shaking, but I did come through with the goods,’ he said placing them in front of her. ‘I was about to have a coffee break. Can I join you?’

Callie shrugged, already mouth deep into the soft, chocolatey croissant by the time Billy returned with a short black and a small plate of continental cakes. ‘You like your sweets, don’t you?’

Callie laughed, covering her mouth when a piece of the flaky pastry flew out. ‘To be honest, I think I’ve been restricting myself and squeezing into tiny designer business suits for so long that coming home has just given me some much needed freedom, however, this can’t go on.’ She said the last part while shoving the remaining piece into her mouth. ‘I think I’ve already gained two kilos.

Billy grinned. ‘Men love a woman with a bit of meat, I know I do. Anyway, when you’re heavier you’re much harder to abduct.’

Callie tilted her head as if that would somehow make what he said any easier to process. Was he saying she should gain weight so no one could steal her off the street?

Realising her confusion he added, ‘I just mean that women are all beautiful in their own way, so why worry? You only live once.’

Callie shrugged. He had a point. ‘Yes, but when you’re trying to make an impression, you also don’t want to have rolls flowing over your clothing because everything you own is now too tight and looks like one of your muffins over there.’

‘Oh, so that’s how it is?’

Again, she had no idea what he was talking about.

‘I didn’t realise that you were trying to make an impression. For the record, you can stop trying because I think you look fabulous,’ he teased.

‘Not you, you meat head. Someone else. An old boyfriend actually.’

Somehow, Callie again ended up confiding in Billy the Baker about her history with Hamish and how she had left him in absolute tatters. And, how she sort-of wanted to make an impression, but wasn’t really sure there was any point because really, she was going to go back to Sydney anyway.

When she was finished, Billy got up without a word.

‘Well, aren’t you going to say anything?’ Callie asked, stunned by his complete silence. ‘I pour my heart out to you and you just walk off?’

‘To be honest, I kinda thought it was one of those one-way conversations. Where you just wanted to unload, but didn’t really want to hear any other opinions.’

Callie stared at him in utter confusion. Why was this baker so complex? Was he right? Maybe she did just want to unload without hearing what he really thought about it. Did he have thoughts about it?

‘Well, I thought you might at least tell me what you think,’ she said, trying to sound as if she didn’t particularly care either way.

Billy slotted back into the booth opposite her. ‘Okay, I’ll tell you what I think. But only if you promise not to get mad.’

Callie gave him a questioning look. ‘Why would I get mad?’

‘In my experience,’ Billy explained, folding his arms as if what he was about to say might bring him some heat. ‘Women tend to tell you about an issue, wait for an answer and then get angry at you for that answer. So, now I tend to just listen and keep my opinions to myself unless specifically asked to share them.’

He definitely had Callie’s interest. ‘Go on,’ she pushed.

‘From what I can see, you’ve come back to this town begrudgingly and somewhat with your tail between your legs. However,’ he paused on the however part before continuing. ‘Coming back home has allowed you the opportunity to heal some old wounds and some fractured relationships and I think now that you’re here you’re realising that maybe it’s nowhere near as bad as your younger self made it out to be.’

Callie sipped her coffee and mulled over what he had said. There was actually some truth to it. ‘Yes, but what about Hamish, oh Guru, what do you think about that?’

Billy smiled. ‘What I think is that he was never the right man for you because if he was, you wouldn’t have left him. Love is funny like that. If it’s real and forever, you just know and nothing or no one gets in the way. Simple as that.’

‘I left because I wanted more and I had dreams and aspirations. I couldn’t force Hamish to come to Sydney. He would have hated it.’

‘Like I said, he was never the right man. For the right man you would have stayed and for the right woman a man would have considered leaving. Neither of you did that.’

‘That’s not fair! I thought Hamish was the right man. Maybe he is the right man, but surely I shouldn’t have to give up my dreams just to make love work, should I? What an outdated and old-fashioned way of thinking. Honestly, you can’t be serious.’

Billy got up and went back to the counter leaving Callie to her annoyance.

‘Like I said,’ he called from behind the coffee machine, ‘you asked for my opinion and I gave it. Don’t go getting all sooky about it now.’

‘Sooky? I’ll give you sooky, Billy the ….Bakery, Baker!’

Billy stopped and stared at Callie, his grin wide. ‘Is that really the best you can do?’

Callie huffed and tried to quickly come up with a better return, but Billy beat her to the punch.

‘Honey, I’d love for you to sit here daydreaming about Hamish the farmer all day, but some of us have to work and I’ve got a big order to fill for Christmas,’ he said, ignoring the fact that she was gearing up for an argument.

‘Well, that suits me fine, because I was just leaving. And anyway, that coffee tasted burnt!’

Callie stomped to the door and attempted to slam it, but the rubber stopper brought it to a soft close with barely a sound. ‘Argh! For goodness sake!’

Billy watched with amusement as she stormed across the street, her legs barely able to make stride in the tight skirt, and tear off in the Ute.

He liked this girl. She had a fire that couldn’t be extinguished, even if at times it did produce a raging tantrum. This girl was interesting.

5

Christmas Eve was upon them. It was stinking hot by 12 pm and a buzz of excitement had completely filled the Ashton house. It had been years since Marjory had thrown any kind of party, other than the wake for Uncle Dave four years ago that had ended with Dad getting paralytic drunk and singing verse after torturous verse of ‘I Did it My Way,’ by Frank Sinatra.

Callie checked that the mistletoe, five separate bunches, were all hung in strategic and convenient positions throughout the house and outside verandah. Not that she had decided she would kiss Hamish or anything, but just in case the mood took her – or him.

The entire setup looked pretty amazing. Cam and Darcy had done a brilliant job of bringing the garden area to life with wine barrels to use as bars, hay bales spread all across the garden for seating and dozens of solar lamps to light up the area as well as string light bulbs that ran from the edge of the house across to the shed and back. It actually looked beautiful.

Inside, Callie and Marjory had gotten a little over-excited with the decoration. The house now resembled a tinsel wonderland. They didn’t quite have the artistic flair that Cam did in oganising things, but at least it was festive.

‘What needs to be chopped and prepared, Mum?’ Callie asked, expecting a full afternoon of food prep.

‘I know I said I’d do some cooking, but to be honest, darling, it was just easier to order in. It’s all getting delivered at 5:30 pm, nice and hot and ready to eat. The main things we need are the plates, cutlery and glasses to be set up and to make sure we have plenty of ice for the drinks later.’

Callie stood back and eyed her mother. Who was this relaxed woman and where was the usual frantic mess that would unfold in the lead up to any event? Callie’s Communion party had almost put her mother in the hospital.

‘Yes,’ Marjory laughed, ’I know I’m usually a mess, but this time I decided to just outsource everything and give myself a break.’

Callie went over to her mother and gave her a hug. ‘I’m going to head into town and get a few extra bottles of soft drink and alcohol. God knows how many stragglers Cam’s invited.’ She squeezed her mother again. ‘And I’m proud of you. Go put your feet up for a while.’

When Callie returned, armed with dozens of extra drinks and chips, as well as the plates and plastic cutlery, it was already 4:30 pm.

‘Crap, I wanted to be ready early so that I could start handing some of the food around when people arrive,’ she said to her mum. ‘I’ll jump in the tub now.’

Marjory, who was setting up bowls of nuts and laying Christmas crackers anywhere and everywhere, nodded her agreement and set about running some extra tinsel she had found around the doorway of the kitchen, while Cam and Darcy set up the old ping pong table outside.

When Callie emerged from the tub almost an hour later, with a towel around her head and green goo she’d bought from a herbal shop in Sydney smeared all over her face, she smacked head on into Billy.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’ she demanded in a tone that was less than friendly.

Billy held up the tray of goods he was holding. ‘Um, delivering all the food for the party.’

‘Oh, right. Well, I didn’t know Mum had ordered all the stuff from you.’ Callie, reminded of the goo by Billy’s obvious repulsion, ripped the towel from her head and wiped it off.

Marjory appeared in the hall. ‘Billy, this is my daughter, Callie,’ she said, placing her hand on his shoulder. She leaned in to Callie as if Billy shouldn’t hear what she was about to say. ‘Billy’s a godsend, Callie. You just wait until you taste his chocolate croissants. You’ll die.’

From behind Marjory Billy jiggled one eyebrow up and down at Callie and gave a sly smirk. ‘Where shall I put this Mrs. A? Kitchen bench okay for now?’

Marjory giggled ridiculously, as if what he had said was completely hilarious, which brought about another smirk from Billy, cast in Callie’s direction.

When her dad came in the door and joined the chorus singing Billy’s praise, Callie stomped off to her room to dress. Even from behind the closed door she could hear her father’s groans of pleasure as he sampled something from every tray.

‘You will be back Billy? 6:30 sharp, remember,’ Marjorie crooned.

‘Oh I’ll be back Mrs. A, I wouldn’t miss it for anything.’

Callie’s face burned. She knew, even though she couldn’t see him, that he had turned toward her door as he said that. This guy was really starting to get under her skin. How dare he be so smug? And in her own parent’s house! No, there would be no more stops at the bakery. Billy was officially off of her Christmas card list.

***

Callie emerged from her bedroom like a butterfly from its cocoon. She had managed to put together something decent from the mix of items she’d brought with her.

‘You look stunning, sweetie,’ her mother gleamed, ‘it’s amazing what a pricey outfit and good make-up can do.’

Callie’s moment of elation deflated as quickly as it had risen. ‘Thanks, Mum. I think.’

‘C’mon,’ Marjory said, grabbing her arm. ‘Help me get the ice buckets ready outside.’

Cam and Darcy were already engaged in a ping pong battle of epic proportions. There was a one-hundred-dollar bill on the line and where money was involved, Cam would sell his own offspring to be victorious. As they jostled and ribbed each other, Callie sunk cans of beer and soft-drink deep into the freezing cold ice. She left her hands in there for a few seconds to cool, already feeling her make-up starting to run off of her face.

‘Merry Christmas!’ The familiar and welcome voice came from the side of the house.

‘Mel, you’re here! Yay!’ Callie squealed, running to give her a hug.

Behind her it seemed from the cheers that Cam had been momentarily distracted by Mel’s arrival, giving Darcy the opportunity to win the point, and the game.

Callie dragged Mel inside while Marjory continued fussing with the drinks, cups and cutlery. ‘You’re solo. Where are the kids?’

‘My aunty came over and insisted that I go out and have some fun for a few hours. Everyone is sure I’m on the verge of a breakdown.’

She said it with humour, but Callie could tell there was some truth in her words. ‘Are you?’ Tell me everything,’ Callie insisted, handing Mel a glass and filling it with bubbly champagne. ‘I feel like I’ve missed everything.’

Mel took a large mouthful and seemed to need a moment. She perched on the kitchen stool and tears filled her bright blue eyes.

‘Oh Mel, I’m sorry,’ Callie said, putting an arm around her. ‘Are you okay? It was insensitive of me to ask like that. I’m just so glad to see you.’

Mel dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. ‘It’s okay, Hun, it’s just all been so hard, you know? That stinking sod of a husband of mine was screwing anything that moved, and I had no idea.’ She paused for a moment and seemed to be weighing something up. ‘Actually, that’s a cop-out. I knew he was cheating and I turned a blind eye. That sounds awful I know, but honestly Callie, if I was really honest, I knew from the day I married him that I’d made a mistake.’

Callie was stunned into an uncharacteristic silence. Eventually she managed to find some words. ‘Really? You knew even then?’

‘I knew,’ Mel admitted, swallowing another large mouthful, ‘I knew and I went through with it anyway because I thought I should. But honestly, I made a big mistake. The only good thing to come out of our marriage was the kids.’

Callie refilled Mel’s glass. She had emptied it rather fast. ‘Well look at us,’ Callie smiled, ‘We’re a right pair. Both back in The Bay filled with shattered dreams and regret.’ She clanked her glass against Mel’s, causing her to finally smile.

‘And what about you, Cal? I heard you were happy and living it up in Sydney.’

‘I was. But then it all fell apart and… well, I ended up back here. I won’t be staying though.’ Hearing herself say that out loud, she wondered if she was convincing Mel or herself. ‘I never wanted to stay here. You know that. Remember how much I used to dream about getting out of this town?’

Mel nodded. ‘To be honest, I’m glad to be back. The city wasn’t for me. I did it for Ben, but I never really settled in. When I came back, I felt as if I was home where I belong. And the kids love it here. Remember all the fun we had growing up?’

‘Now that I’m back, I have to admit, it’s not as bad as I made it out to be. I actually feel relaxed for the first time since hitting Sydney and not having all the pressure of the job, not to mention the horrendous traffic, is definitely a bonus.’

‘And Hamish?’ Mel asked, an obvious rise in her tone.

‘Yes, Hamish. He’s even hotter than when I broke up with him.’

‘He’s never gotten over you. You know that, right?’

‘I know I broke his heart and when I saw him the other day I’ll admit, I did get a bit of a flutter, but I’ll be going back to Sydney, or maybe Melbourne eventually, so there’s no point even going there.’

Mel raised both eyebrows. ‘Not even for old times’ sake?’

Callie shrugged. She hadn’t completely ruled out the idea of hooking up with Hamish, if he was willing and understood that it would only be a short-term thing.

‘A-ha!’ Mel teased, ‘I knew it. ‘

‘Well I could be here for a while, so it would be nice to date again and Hamish is the obvious choice. Although something the guy in the bakery said to me the other day kind of struck a chord.’

‘Oh I know who you mean. Billy, the hot one.’

‘He’s not hot,’ Callie corrected, ‘but anyway, he said that if Hamish had been the love of my life, that my choices might have been different. That I might have stayed here if Hamish really was Mr. Right.’

‘Maybe he has a point. If you had been truly, madly in love with Hamish and wanted to make a life only with him, maybe you would have stayed, but you had big dreams that couldn’t be stifled then. Could it be different now?’

‘But why should I have to be the one to compromise? It’s as if I have to give up on everything just to be loved.’’

‘That’s not entirely true. You would have to make some sacrifices, that’s what love is about, but you could practice law anywhere. Hamish is who he is and if he really was the love of your life, then you’d make those sacrifices to be with him no matter what.’

‘God, now you’re sounding like him. The baker.’

Mel got up from the stool. ‘C’mon let’s go get some more bubbles and some food. And why isn’t there any music? We need music, damn it!’

***

By 7:00pm all the guests had arrived, including Hamish who was absolutely smouldering hot in blue jeans and a short-sleeved navy shirt. When he kissed Callie hello, she breathed in his delicious cinnamon aftershave, with hints of wood and sweetness.

‘You look amazing, Cal,’ he smiled, bright, white teeth glowing from between his perfect full pink lips.

‘So do you,’ she giggled, suddenly reminding herself of how her mother had sounded earlier when talking to the baker.

Callie shuddered then straightened her shoulders and reminded herself she was a strong and independent woman now. She could talk to and impress a man without getting a case of the teenage giggles.

‘So, how are your parents? Is your dad still trying to do everything in spite of his bad back?’ Callie asked.

Hamish smiled. ‘Yep, that’s about right, although he’s slowed down a little now since the heart attack and all.’

Aware that a bunch of the mistletoe that she had strategically placed around the house earlier was only a few steps away, Callie slowly shifted backwards, inching her way towards it. As expected, Hamish didn’t seem to notice as he continued telling her what was happening on the farm. When he instinctively stepped closer to her, she knew that she’d have him under the mistletoe in no time.

While Hamish continued with the story of his favourite cow Daisy’s pregnancy, behind him, Callie could see Cam talking to Mel in the hall.

Was he crying? Was Mel crying?

‘Hamish, sorry, can you hang on for a minute?’ She interrupted, bee-lining for the pair. By the time she got to them it was too late. Lips were firmly locked and legs had already begun to intertwine.

‘Oh, crap!’ Callie hissed, sensing that Mel might regret her actions in the morning, and feeling a little guilty about plying her with so much champagne. Feeling like a voyeur, she gave up on the idea of trying to separate them and instead headed back to Hamish, who had fabulously moved slightly closer to the mistletoe. He was now only inches away from being beneath it and she was only minutes from pointing it out to him. A nervous flutter filled her stomach. What if he didn’t want to kiss her? What if he said he didn’t like her like that anymore?

‘Sorry about that,’ she apologised, ‘A Cam emergency. Where were we?’

Hamish launched straight back into his story about the calf’s birth. Which actually sounded dreadful. While he described the moment of sliding the gooey baby out with his bare hands, Callie spotted another disaster unfolding. Billy, the annoying baker, was hovering in the kitchen and watching as she was trying to make her move on Hamish. When Billy smirked and gave her the thumbs up, she scowled and huffed, causing Hamish to stop with his story.

‘Sorry, I wasn’t pulling that face at you,’ she apologised, realising he was offended. ‘It’s that stupid baker. He’s so annoying.’

Hamish looked around, clearly unsure of who she was referring to, but continued on anyway as Callie inched further toward the mistletoe. She was almost there until Billy pointed to it and winked at her. Fuming at the nerve of him, it took all of her restraint to stop from leaping across the room and throttling him. Thankfully her mother had found Billy and was now smiling wildly at him as she chatted and touched his arm.

‘What do you think?’ Hamish asked.

In that moment Callie realised she hadn’t been listening to a single word he’d said. She wanted to blame Billy for distracting her, but in truth, nothing Hamish had said was even the slightest bit interesting. She stared at his gorgeous blue eyes and luscious lips that were all but begging her to kiss them. Physically, this man had absolutely everything, but what Callie had forgotten was how utterly boring he could be to talk to. The memories that had flooded back fondly earlier, of the two of them together in the park and going to the formal, had not brought with them the actual memories of how while lying in that park, Hamish had talked non-stop about shearing the sheep and how many there were to get through. And while on the ride to their formal, he had ranted the whole way about some other farmer who was doing something he didn’t agree with.

‘Cal?’

‘Sorry, Hamish, I was distracted by my mum for a minute, what was the question?’

‘I asked if you’d been buying branded dairy to help out the farmers since the crisis.’

Callie watched as his lips moved, revealing the perfectly straight, bright white teeth that she had admired while they were dating. Did it matter that he was boring and only ever talked about the farm? Did it matter that he had no idea about anything that was going on in the world if it wasn’t farming related? She still wanted to kiss him and she had finally inched close enough to be under the mistletoe.

Before she could answer his question, there was a crash from the hall, followed by raucous giggling. Callie turned to see her brother and Mel, as well as her mother’s hall table, on the floor, the pair with their lips still locked together.

Callie felt Hamish step in closer behind her. His hand, strong and warm, pressed gently on her side. Was he going to pull her in? Swing her around and kiss her passionately under the mistletoe?

She waited a moment, her breath held in her throat in anticipation as she imagined him taking her in his arms. She remembered what it was like to kiss those lips. Hamish was always passionate and gentle, yet firm and sure of himself.

When she felt him place his other hand on her side and begin to turn her toward him, she closed her eyes and breathed in. She held it there, but the lips didn’t come to meet hers. Opening her eyes, she stared into Billy’s eyes instead. Before she could protest or slap him, he leaned in and gently kissed her.

Every ounce of tension in her body slowly gave in to the kiss. She let go and leaned into him, her arms finding their way around his neck. This kiss wasn’t like the one she had been expecting, the one that was Hamish. It wasn’t like Zack’s or any of the other men who had kissed her. This kiss was different. It was full of want and need and experience and interest. It wasn’t just young passion or attraction, it was fuller and deeper. Billy’s kiss was like something she had never known and now that she had it, she knew she could never let it go.

When Billy finally pulled away, she remained there with her eyes closed.

‘You can breathe now,’ he whispered.

Opening her eyes, she stared into Billy’s. There was so much hiding behind the chocolate brown and flecks of green, so much to explore and discover. When he smiled, lines formed around the sides of his mouth and caused a dimple to appear on his left cheek. She stared at him, unable to break the intensity of the moment.

Billy pointed up at the mistletoe above them and then across the room. Callie followed the direction of his finger, which led to Hamish.

Staring at the man in the blue shirt and jeans, she wondered how she had even entertained the idea of being with him. There was no denying that he was gorgeous and they had shared a special time in their lives together, but even in the five minutes she had spent talking to him, she realised that Billy had been completely right. He was not the one and he never had been.

She turned back to Billy and grinned. With her finger pointed upward, they both followed the line to the mistletoe. When their eyes met again, Callie leaned in and kissed him.

Maybe the right man had come along after all.

About the Author

Susan Murphy is an author and marriage (and funeral) celebrant from Adelaide, South Australia. From weddings on cruise ships to family brawls at funerals, Susan has seen (and completely enjoyed) all of it. These situations have of course provided much inspiration for her writing.

Her first book ‘Confetti Confidential: They Do, I Don’t’ was published with Harper Collins in 2015 with the follow-up, ‘Annabel’s Wedding’ released on November 1st 2015.

After a stint as the Writer in Residence at the SA Writers Centre, Susan has co-written a middle-grade children’s book and is now working on a historical fiction project as well as a new romantic comedy series.

In her ‘spare’ time she mainly eats chocolate and drinks wine, although she occasionally turns up at work and sometimes parents her three children, 2 dogs, cat and cockatiel, Moe.

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Candy Christmas

Tracy Krimmer

1

“I hate parties!” I tug at my sweater trying to cover my backside. If I had time to do my laundry I’d be standing here in the comfort of my jeans. Instead I’m accenting every unflattering curve with my yoga pants as an insane number of people flood my apartment.

“You never go to any.”

I roll my eyes at my best friend Lexy, Captain Obvious over here. “That’s because I hate them!” Yet here I am, in my own apartment, hosting one. “I can’t believe you talked me into this.”

I didn’t want to invite my entire department to my home. Technically, I didn’t. Lexy handled all of it—the invites, the Secret Santa exchange. All I had to do was buy an ugly sweater and some beer. I purchased the alcohol but knit myself up the ugliest sweater in the world. If I’m going to do this I might as well try to have fun with it.

“I hope you don’t expect me to socialize.” That’s why I work in data entry. I input numbers into spreadsheets all day. Sure, it may sound boring to some, but this gives me the least interaction with people needed. One on one I’m okay, most times, but put me in a situation where I’m faced with maintaining a conversation with more than one person and I’m a bumbling idiot.

“Come on,” Lexy pulls at my arm and forces me around the room. “Mingling is required.”

“No, it’s not.” I should check the thermostat. It must be a hundred degrees in here. I’m sure I have the armpit stains to prove it. “Is everybody here?” Since she handled everything I don’t even know exactly how many people are coming. I believe she said she invited 45 people. Forty-five! I didn’t even think that many people worked with us. How on earth she expected me to fit that many people in my apartment to begin with is beyond me.

Lexi scans the room, pointing her finger at people as she does a headcount. “I think almost everybody is here. We’re missing maybe one person.”

I’m about to ask who it is when a crash from the kitchen distracts me. “I’ll be right back.” Now these people are destroying my apartment!

I race into the kitchen to find my coworker Jeff standing next to the counter with his hands up in the air, a plate shattered into pieces at his feet.

“How?”

He reaches his hand over and grabs a pickle from the entrée tray. As he bites, he shrugs as though the plate jumped off the counter by itself and smashed onto the floor. “It just happened.” He takes another bite and I cringe a little more, my annoyed meter climbing from a five to an eight. “Sorry.” The almost six-foot man dressed in a dark green shirt that says “This is my Christmas sweater” doesn’t even bother to close his mouth while chewing.

I sigh and get my broom from the closet. “Careful. Step around. I’ve got this.”

“Thanks, Candybar, you’re the best.”

I despise when people call me Candybar, and they do all the time as though it’s their given right and it’s my birth name. No, Candy is my birth name. Not Candace, Cadence, or Candybar. Candy. My name isn’t something I hate, but I do find moments like these especially irritating. I respond with a half smile as he carefully steps around the mess and joins the rest of the guests in the living room.

Five minutes later I’ve swept everything up and run a mop through the area. I hope I got all the glass because with my luck one of my guests will slice their foot and I’ll be paying a hospital bill.

“Are you about done?” Lexy sneaks up on me, and I almost jump out of my own skin.

“Yeah. Let me put this away.” I’m slow putting the broom back in the closet. The longer I take the less chance there is to speak with people. Avoidance. I do it often. “Why did agree I to this?”

“Because you love me and I can’t fit this many people in my one-bedroom apartment.”

“So because my apartment is bigger I have to suffer?”

“This is hardly suffering. Look around, Candy.” She’s quiet long enough for me to scan the room and glance at the mix of males and females chatting, some dancing to the music. “These people are having fun. They don’t care that you walked around the office with half your skirt up your pants for most of the day last month or that you started eating Bob’s retirement cake before we even showed it to him.”

“Gee, thanks.” The list of my mishaps goes on for pages. I could probably write a novel about them, one of those chick lit books where the heroine is a total klutz. I don’t consider myself clumsy as much as socially challenged, and I think fate plays dirty tricks on me.

“Why are you fighting this party so much? Enjoy yourself.”

If only it were that simple. She’s a social butterfly. She’s the moth and parties are her flame. Everyone I come in contact with has some sort of social game or can at least function at a gathering without either breaking into an anxiety attack or making a fool of themselves. Me? I avoid parties and all things that involve a ton of people. I plan my grocery shopping trips around the quiet hours. The self-checkout line is perfect for me because the only conversation I’m having is to yell at the machine when it doesn’t work. When it comes to social circles, Lexy is pretty much it. If I’m not out with her or at work, I stay in my apartment. My knitting keeps me busy enough, and I manage to sell a decent amount through my online store, Candy’s Creative Knits. Why force myself into public if I don’t need to be there?

“I don’t like being thrown into a conversation where I’m forced to care what the other person is talking about.” And I’m sure they think the same about me. I spend most of my time in discussions trying to think of what to say next so a lot of the time I don’t even remember what we’ve discussed.

“Whoa, so do you only pretend to care whenever we’re having a conversation?”

“No. You’re different. We’re friends.”

“And all these people could be too if you talked to them instead of avoiding them.”

My eyes widen as I pour a glass of beer. “No, thank you. Socializing isn’t for me.” Who came up with this idea people need more than one good friend? I surround myself with people I love—Lexy and my mom—and that’s enough. I don’t want to be part of a popularity contest. Quality over quantity, and with those two, I hit the jackpot.

Lexy mumbles something I’m sure is related to dating, as most of her complaints about me relate to the subject. I think she’s complaining, anyway, when she says she’s pointing out the obvious. “What did you say?”

“I said it’s no wonder you’re single.”

“Shh. Do you think you could say that any louder?” And humiliate me any more? Do I want to be single? Well, that depends on the day. There are some things a best friend or a mom can’t do for you that a significant other can. You know, besides the obvious. I do want the comfort of someone to tell all my troubles to, someone who can hold me when I’m sad, or to wipe my tears when I’m watching Love Actually for the hundredth time.

“Sure. It’s a wonder you’re single!” Lexy raises her voice and a few heads spin our way. I slap her on the arm, and I’m certain my heart is about to explode it’s pumping so fast. The only thing that can possibly make this any more embarrassing is when Jeremy Dillon opens my apartment door and strolls in.

2

“What in the world is Jeremy Dillon doing here? He doesn’t even work in our department.” He might as well as often as he’s by my desk. He’s not to blame, though. And neither am I if my computer breaks down every other minute. Maybe instead of investing in Friday lunch spreads my manager could budget for new computers. Who am I kidding? I’m the main one with this problem, and the youngest in the group. I can’t even represent my own generation correctly.

“You like that?” She winks and bumps her shoulder with mine. When I don’t respond, she pinches me on my back where my neck is exposed.

“Ow! What was that for?” I rub the back of my neck and secretly plan my revenge. Maybe break a heel or stick a sign on her back. Nah. I’m not that malicious. Maybe I’ll put post-it notes all over her computer screen or something. I’d rather be annoying than vengeful.

“You’re not dreaming. He’s here.”

“I know he’s here. I can see that. But why is he here? I thought this was for our department only.” Jeremy’s the IT guy, and even when he’s not at my desk, I often run into him in the halls. I’ll admit, but never to Lexy, at times I seek him out. An unnecessary bathroom break becomes urgent when I spot him walking toward the department. I never talk to him but I’m sure to smile and wave. That’s the best way to ensure I don’t make a fool of myself.

She pours another beer. “Here. Bring him this.”

I set the mug on the counter. “No. You invited him. You bring it to him.” What would I even say to him? The only conversations we really have center around my computer. I’ve never spoken with him on his territory, either. I’ve passed his desk before, and from his pictures I gather he has two brothers and either him or someone in his family has a Basset Hound. He collects Bobbleheads and reads tech magazines. That’s the extent of my Jeremy knowledge.

“Now is that any way to greet your guests?”

“If I recall, you’re the one who’s throwing this party, not me. Just because everyone is physically in my apartment doesn’t mean I need to greet everyone. You didn’t make me say hello to anyone else.”

“You don’t have the hots for anybody else. And I don’t make you do anything.”

I punch her in the arm. “I do not have the hots for him.” At least she didn’t say that too loud. And whether she thinks so or not, she pushes me to do a lot of things.

“You most certainly do. You’re telling me you have that many issues on your computer on a weekly basis?”

“Yes, I do.” I tell her matter-of-factly, and I’m not exaggerating. My email messes up or a program doesn’t respond at least every other day. Technology and I are not a good match. I have an Instagram and Facebook account but I might as well still be on MySpace. Most of my peers use Snapchat and I’ll admit I’m not one hundred percent sure what the app is. Knitting, teacups, and a worn paperback book are my favorite things in the world. Simplicity. I’m all about simplicity.

“Well, I don’t believe you.” She looks past me. “Jeremy!”

I want to punch her in the arm again, but I’m sure at this point she’s probably bruising, and I don’t want Jeremy to witness me doing that. He looks this way, and I stare down at my beer, my reflection in the light lager. If I don’t make eye contact, maybe he won’t come over.

No such luck.

“Hey Lexy.” He acknowledges her quickly before turning his attention to me. “Candy, nice apartment.”

I nod my head and I’m sure the sweat has moved from my armpits to underneath my boobs. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact.

“Where should I put this?”

He’s holding a small box wrapped in Peanuts Christmas paper. “Over by the tree.” I point to my sorry excuse for a Christmas tree that stands five feet tall, has a burned out string of lights, and more knit ornaments than any human being should ever be allowed to own.

Jeremy lifts the box up and waves it towards me as a thank you before exiting the conversation.

“I can’t believe you did that.”

“Well, I did. You never go out on any dates because you think the universe has something against you and everyone around you thinks negatively about you. Strip yourself of that fear. Go for it.”

This is why she’s my best friend. I’ve never said words like this out loud to her before, but yet, she reads me like an open book. “I don’t know what to say. I’ll make a fool of myself.” Which is exactly why I keep to myself. I’m like a one-woman comedy show when I speak to people.

“Aha! So you do like him.”

What’s not to like? Jeremy may be the sweetest guy I’ve ever met. Not to mention the smartest. I’m not a total idiot when it comes to computers, but I’m in the range. He’s good looking, too. Between the curls on top his head or his glasses, I can’t decide what turns me on more, but I’ve fantasized about him more than once.

“Candy, you’re blushing.”

“What?” I touch my cheeks and the heat transfers to my hand. “Sorry. But tell me what to say to him.”

“How about hello? How is your day going? Would you like to go out with me?”

“What? I’m not asking him out.” The simple act of exchanging more than twenty words outside of work takes enough effort. I’m not throwing a date into the mix.

“Fine, but do something, because here he comes.”

Lexy pats me on the shoulder, and as Jeremy approaches she walks away, leaving me alone, surrounded by my discomfort and anxiety and the sweat that’s now dripping down my back. This sweater is so hot.

With Lexy out of earshot, she can’t save this conversation if it goes downhill, which I am more than positive will happen. I need an out. Is there anything I can do? Anywhere I can go? I’ll rush to the bathroom and lock myself there all night.

“So, do you have another beer?” Jeremy’s voice echoes through my ears as I’m planning my escape. He points to my mug, and I realize I’m being an impolite hostess. Bumbling idiot or jerk hostess—I’m not sure which is worse.

“Sorry. Sorry.” I turn around to grab a beer from the refrigerator but don’t want to leave him standing there so I turn around again. I flip flop so many times I probably could pass for a fish flopping around on a pier. He pulls his brows together and the corners of his lips turn up. Oh God, he thinks I’m crazy. A lunatic. I point to the fridge, which in itself proves my lunacy, and when I finally take a step forward, he follows.

My hands shake as I pour the beer into a tall glass, though I’m not sure he’s noticed. I’m focused on his sweater, which is bright red donning Rudolph’s face and big nose, his antlers crawling up his shoulders. “I like your sweater.”

Really? I like your sweater. As if anyone seriously likes any of these sweaters. I couldn’t have said anything dumber.

“It's cute.” Someone please make me shut up. The next thing I'll be doing is asking him if the material is 100% acrylic and if it makes his chest itch. Just. Shut. Up.

“If you like it now, just wait.” He reaches under his shirt. What’s he going to do? Take it off? Did I mention the chest thing out loud? It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done something so asinine.

While I’m busy having my panic attack, Rudolph’s nose lights up and flashes. “Don’t you love it more now?” I can’t take my eyes off the lights. It’s like I’m in a disco.

“Now that’s corny.”

Where in the world is Lexy? I’m digging myself a hole here. I insulted him. I couldn’t laugh, or even just say it’s funny. No. I had to tell him it’s corny.

“It reminds me a bit of ET.” I quickly recover, something I’m not able to do often. “Mine doesn’t do anything special. It’s just ugly.”

“Well, then, it’s a good thing you’re not.”

Wait, what did he just say? He paid my insult back with a compliment? I’m thankful the music is so loud because he may have otherwise heard me gasp. My pulse is pounding between my ears and the once-loud music seems to be in a distance. I have to say something. Anything. Thank you. You’re pretty, too. No. Say something. “I made it.”

What? I made it? Why on earth would I admit to that? I wait for his reaction in the form of horror on his face but it doesn’t come.

“Wow. That’s pretty impressive.”

“Impressive? It’s an ugly sweater. I didn’t have to do too much to make it ugly.”

“Maybe not but I’m sure you put a lot of hard work into it.”

“I like when it’s hard.”

Jeremy spits his drink back into his cup.

Oh my gosh, what did I say? I’m an idiot. “I mean, not when it’s hard. I mean, of course when it’s … I mean no … I mean I knit a lot and I don’t knit easy patterns. I enjoy the more difficult ones.”

And this is why I don’t talk to people. My foot is so far in my mouth right now I’m choking.

“Ah, thanks for the explanation.”

“Do you want another drink?” I can’t let him drink out of that cup again. Sure, it’s his spit, but that’s still gross.

“Sure. Pour away.”

I take his glass and dump the lager down the drain. Before I pour a new one I’m sure to wash out the glass. “Here you go.” Our fingers touch for a split second when he takes it from me.

“You’re a wonderful hostess.” I refrain from pointing out I didn’t plan on talking to him and that I’d rather be locked in the bathroom. “You went all out with the decor.”

“Thank you.” The decorations were all Lexy and to be honest, it looks like Santa’s workshop took over my apartment. From twinkling lights strung everywhere to the back of my door resembling a snowman, and even the white balloons hung to make it look like it’s snowing, Lexy takes party planning to an entirely new level.

“I didn’t even want to have this party.” I don’t make eye contact with him but instead look past him at my coworkers leaving messes in their wakes. No one is using a coaster, cookie crumbs cover my once spotless floor, and Smelly Steven is using my throw pillows as a chair. (I didn’t give him that nickname but he’s earned it by eating raw onions in his cubicle. Yes. In his cubicle!)

“Then why have it?”

Ah, the million dollar question. “[_I’m _]not technically the one throwing it. Lexy is. She’s using my apartment because it’s bigger.”

“If it’s not your party, then, want to get out of here?”

Get out of here? And go where? I can’t leave my own party. Can I? Lexy can handle everything on her own. She is anyway, really. It seems to me she only put me in charge of keeping Jeremy company. I want to do that, but I’m already running out of things to say. The only things I can think of I can’t say to him because they are way too embarrassing.

“Candy? Are you there?” He waves his hand in front of my face. My eyes are zoning out so it’s a little blurry. I snap out of it. “Want to get out of here?”

“And go where?” I ask and immediately wish I could take the question back. My reaction was quick, unplanned, and a little harsh.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if I can have your attention!” Lexy shouts from across the room. “It’s time for Christmas karaoke! In this bowl, I have the names of famous Christmas songs. When it’s your turn, you can pick from the bowl. The winner tonight will get Dave’s leftovers from The Rib Shack!”

The crowd cheers and I roll my eyes. Dave goes out to lunch almost every day to this rib place, and when he comes back, everyone begs for a taste. I’m not surprised the crowd is excited about this. I don’t want anyone’s leftovers, though, especially if it means I have to do karaoke to do it. I slide onto the kitchen chair and slouch down. Hopefully she won’t notice me.

“Jeremy! Do you want to go first?”

Crap. She points right at him, and he’s standing next to me, his hand on the chair almost touching my back.

He chugs his beer. “Sure.” I think he looks at me, but I don’t make eye contact. “You in?”

I shake my head and slouch down more. He puts his glass on the table and finds his way through the crowd to where Lexy is standing.

She shoots the bucket out toward him, and he pulls a sheet of paper.

“Okay. Where’s the mic?”

“No mic. You can sing loud enough.”

“Okay. If you say so.”

Wait. So she has no mic and from what I see no actual karaoke machine. Where are the lyrics? Oh gosh, this is worse than I thought.

“All right. If you don’t know the words, make some up.”

She holds her phone up, and I can barely make out it’s her iTunes app and it’s cued to an instrumental version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”

Jeremy clears his throat and the music starts. He swings his hips to the beat and tosses in some arm movements. I place my hand on my forehead. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I’m embarrassed, and I’m not even the one singing.

He starts to belt out the words, but not in his own voice. His voice is high-pitched, singing as though Mariah Carey were. Oh. My. God.

The crowd doesn’t care. They love it. Love it. They’re clapping and singing along. By the time Jeremy is done, his curls are wet and he’s sweating and the crowd is chanting his name. Clearly he has no issue with crowds. Meanwhile I sneak out to my home office and shut the door behind me.

3

I move my finger around the touchpad with force, but nothing happens. All I want to do is send an email to my mom complaining about this party and everything froze on me. This is why I converted to a Mac in the first place—fewer problems. But problems always follow me, better computer or not. I shouldn’t be surprised this is happening.

I slam the laptop shut and open it back up, hoping that somehow solves things. It doesn’t. I press the Power key but nothing moves. Why won’t this damn thing even turn off? What does the world have against me? I open and close my laptop one more time when someone knocks on my door.

The door opens before I even offer entrance and Jeremy walks through. I quickly open the computer back up and start typing on a blank screen in an attempt to appear busy. I can’t have him think I came in here to escape from the party. I had something important to do. “Can I help you?” I normally force a smile when at work but with Jeremy, being fake is unnecessary. The simple thought of him brings radiance to my face.

“Yeah.” He shuts the door behind him drowning out the music in the background. I think I hear Melony, my supervisor, singing a chopped up version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I don’t think I’m missing much of anything. “You disappeared. Is everything okay?” He cocks his head and his eyes soften behind his dark glasses.

“What? Yeah. It’s fine. I’m not a karaoke fan.” Or a fan of crowds. Or parties. Or anything involving more than my immediate family and closest friend, really. No offense to Jeremy.

“Not even watching others make a fool of themselves?” He approaches my desk and I type furiously again, hoping he’ll turn around and keep walking out that door. I want to hide here until the party is over and my apartment is empty. Even watching others makes me uncomfortable.

I shrug as I continue focusing on the black screen, involved in my fake email. “Watching can lead to my best friend yanking me up on stage, resulting me in throwing up on everyone.”

Oh no. I’ve fit vomit into the conversation. Can this day be over already? Christmas is in two days and not only do I have Christmas Eve off, but I’ve taken the entire week off. I won’t have to see these people for a while. Tomorrow I can clean this mess of an apartment, knit, and watch Elf. My teacups could use some reorganization, too. My aunt brought beautiful white teacups with a teal and gold swirl pattern back from her trip to England. I’m anxious to fit them into my display.

“First, there’s no stage, just your living room. Lexy didn’t even care to set up a faux stage or provide a microphone. Second, if you need to throw up, tell me and I’ll clear the pathway to the bathroom and even hold your hair. And lastly, does Lexy make all your decisions for you?”

I stop typing and inside my mind is telling me to scream “No!” and “Get out!” and “How dare you?” but I understand where he’s coming from. Lexy doesn’t mean to tell me what to do. I just never disagree with her. Disagreements lead to arguments which lead to uncomfortable situations. No, thank you. I dealt enough with yelling with my parents before their divorce. If I can avoid the possibility of a confrontation, you bet your bottom dollar I will.

“Typing up something important?”

I’ve been deep in thought and didn’t realize he’s now next to me mocking my frozen screen. Why couldn’t it have at least crapped out on me in the middle of typing my email? I wouldn’t look like such a fool then. I clear my throat as I struggle with what to say. “So nothing is moving on my computer. The thing froze on me.”

“You weren’t writing a fake email or pretending to be working in a program then?”

I stare at my screen as I bite my lower lip to a point I’m almost certain I’ll draw blood if I don’t stop. What do I say here? If I say I’m typing an email, I’ll look like a lunatic. If I tell him I was typing like that thinking that was going to unfreeze my laptop, he’ll think I’m a dummy when it comes to computers. I mean, I’m not that great at them, I can do basic stuff, but email should be easy.

I’m thankful when he doesn’t give me a chance to answer the question and pulls my laptop away from me. He holds down the power button for a few seconds and my laptop turns off. One more long hold of the button and on it goes.

“Most people don’t hold the button long enough.”

Seriously? That’s all I needed to do? Hold the button longer? “Thanks.” Can I crawl under the table now? What now? Do I go back to the party? I really don’t want Lexy to suck me into karaoke. It can totally happen. I know because it usually does. “I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to computers.”

“Don’t say that. You’re far from it.”

“No. I am. They should make a Computers for Candy book. You know, like the Dummies ones, but specifically for me.”

“You don’t fix computers every single day. I once helped a lady for the same reason. Her computer wouldn’t turn on. I checked all the wires and connections and couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Finally, I touched the top of the tower and it was wet. She then tells me she had a cup of water that spilled over it.”

“No way.” My mouth drops open and I cover it with my hand. “Even I’m not that dumb.”

“See? I told you.” He turns my laptop back toward me. “So, do you want to type a real email or would you like to join the party?”

I want to join the party, but only if it’s me and him. Can’t we stay in my office and talk? I can keep breaking my laptop and he can fix it. How much I’d love that, but I can’t say the words. Instead I hesitate before whispering, “Party.”

4

The moment I return to the party, I’m washed with regret. Lexy announces yet another event, this time a game. When did this become a child’s birthday party? I’m standing close to my office door with Jeremy next to me, and he smells so good. If I’m forced to be here I would rather try and hold a conversation with Jeremy than play games with everyone. Better to make a fool of myself in front of one person than an entire crowd. I’m never doing this again, offering up my home for a party. I knew from the start this was a bad idea and here I am.

“The name of the game is Kiss Relay!” Lexy announces. She’s standing on my kitchen chair, a table of silver, green, and red wrapped chocolate kisses surrounding her. “We’ll have two teams of five for each round and you’ll line up here.” She points around the table and waits. “Come on, now! Jeremy, Candy get up here.” I shake my head and move my stare to my tree instead of at Lexy. “Come on now, don’t be shy.”

Jeremy takes a hold of my hand, and the warmth and firmness are unexpected. My thoughts escape me, and my sensibility, as I follow him. She splits us into different teams. “Dave, Monica, Paulie, Stacia, you all come behind Candy, and Susan, Bill, Danielle, Phil you all go behind Jeremy.” She points to the crowd. “I’ll split the rest of you up the next few rounds.”

We all take our places and wait for direction. She holds up two pairs of mittens. “The first person will have on these mittens. You must grab one kiss from the bowl and unwrap it and then place it in the mouth of the person behind you. I don’t care how the kiss gets there, as long as it does and your mittens remain on. Then give your mittens to that person and they’ll repeat what you just did. The first team done wins.”

What the hell? What kind of a game is this? I feel as though we’re at a young teen’s birthday party and about to play spin the bottle. Before I can open my mouth to kindly drop out, she yells “Go!” and Dave is behind me screaming at me to start. Jeremy already has his kiss out of the bowl and is frantically ripping at the wrapper, and my mittens aren’t even on. I panic and push them on, throwing my hand in the bowl, promptly knocking it over, and all the candies fall out.

“Don’t worry! Keep going!” Lexy yells as she scoops them up and starts putting them back in the bowl.

I roll the chocolate around in my mittens. How in the world am I supposed grip this? I almost have a flap open when Jeremy announces he got his opened. He turns around and Susan opens her mouth and Jeremy promptly tosses it in. I can’t believe she caught it. I keep rushing trying to open the kiss. Nothing is working. My teammates are cheering me on, or at least trying to push me.

“Come on, Candy!”

“Focus!”

“We’re losing! Open the thing!”

My eyes are welling up and my lip quivering as I push harder and harder trying to unwrap this. By the time Jeremy’s team makes it through, my candy is smashed and starting to melt.

I failed my team. They counted on me to win this one and I couldn’t even do that. This is why I don’t participate in these types of events. This is the reason I keep to myself and structure my life around working, my mom, and Lexy. I knit. I collect my teacups. That’s it.

Because when I step out into social situations, the shell around me suffocates me until it shatters into pieces, leaving nothing but traces of my broken heart.

As the crowd cheers Jeremy’s team and mine snickers behind me, I pull off my mittens and set them on the table, turn, and walk away.

Moments later I find myself on the rooftop deck, surrounded by a dusting of freshly fallen snow, and only my ugly sweater to keep me warm. Let’s hope it’s at least good for that.

I wipe off a space on the bench that surrounds the ledge and plop down, ready to burst into tears but my eyes are glued open because they’re so cold. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to be out here, but I need to escape for a few minutes at least.

The door pops open and Lexy joins me. “What’s up, girl? Why did you run off like that?”

“Why did I run off? Did you see what happened?”

“So you lost. Big deal.”

“Big deal? You humiliated me in front of the entire department, and most of all, Jeremy.” I can’t even look at her. I stare into the sparkle of a light. I love the way the apartment manager decorates up here. The Christmas lights are on a timer and they go on at five every evening and stay on until about three in the morning. The setting is gorgeous against the snow.

She steps toward me and stands until she is towering over me. I still don’t look at her. “I didn’t make you do anything. You could have easily said you didn’t want to play that game.”

“No, I couldn’t. That’s the thing about us. Sometimes it really feels like it’s just you. You take over my apartment and invite like fifty people over, force me to play games that put me in front of all these people and to top it off, you invite Jeremy.”

She crosses her arms, and I turn to look at her. She’s looking up at the moon, her lips tight and jaw clenching. “Wow.”

“Yeah, wow is right.”

“What I mean is wow I can’t believe you just said that to me. I’m trying to help you come out of your shell, Candy. You sit in this apartment all the time. You don’t talk to anyone but me at work. Besides me, your mom is your closest friend. I thought maybe it was about time you become a little bit more outgoing.”

“I don’t want to be outgoing. I don’t need to be.”

“I just want you to be happy.”

“Who said I wasn’t?”

Not surprisingly, she doesn’t have a response. Those words have never come out of my mouth.

“But you spend all your time here. You don’t have much of a social life.”

“Who said I needed to be out every night? I like being home. I don’t need to be friends with all my coworkers, and yes, my mom is my closest friend. I don’t need you telling me how to live my life.”

She sits down next to me not even bothering to clear the snow. “I’m so sorry, Candy. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing.”

I shrug, not sure of what else to say, but I’m proud of myself for saying anything at all. “I let people walk all over me.”

“Well, you shouldn’t.”

I glare at her.

“Oh, sorry. That’s me telling you what to do again, isn’t it?”

I offer a half-smile because I know what she is trying to say. “Being part of the crowd, talking to everyone, that’s never been me. It’s great if it’s you, but that’s you. I like to think we balance each other out. I’m the shy one. You’re the outgoing one. We’re a good mix.”

She slides her arm around me. “I like that. Will you accept my apology?”

How can I not? She’s my bestie. “Of course I do.”

“But I won’t apologize for inviting Jeremy. You like him, and I don’t want you to miss out on something great.”

We turn our heads as the rooftop door opens again.

“Ah, right on cue.”

Jeremy smiles at her, and she hops off the bench without saying goodbye.

And he and I are left alone.

***

“Hi!” I sit up from my mopey stance and straighten myself out.

“Hi. I missed you down at the party.”

“You did?”

Jeremy steps toward me and points to where Lexy had been sitting. “May I?”

“Yeah. Sit. Please.”

He sits down and takes his jacket off. “You must be freezing.” The jacket is heavy against my shoulders and back.

“Thanks. But won’t you be cold?”

“Nah. I’m fine. You’ve been out here for a while. You have to be freezing.” I was, but now that he’s here with me, I’m not. “Thanks. You’re very sweet.”

“Sorry I kicked your butt in the kisses game.”

“What? Oh, thank you. I mean, what? I mean, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Lexy likes to do this kind of stuff.”

“She’s a good friend.”

“Yeah, she has her moments.” That’s not a lie. Even though I felt like she was cornering me and forcing me into things, deep down her intentions are always good.

He reaches for his jacket. “Do you need this back?” I pull it off my shoulders and he stops me.

“No, leave it on. I need something from my pocket.” He reaches in and his hand brushes my back. “Here.”

He hands me the box he had when he came in. “What’s this?”

“I know I’m not supposed to say, but I’m your Secret Santa.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

“I got Dave.”

“What did you get him?”

“A gift card to McDonald’s. Maybe he’ll bring that back to the office one day and no one will want that instead of his barbecue.”

He smiles and amid the twinkling lights his teeth sparkle. “Open it.”

What could this be? I’m impressed by the wrapping job. The corners are perfect and a tight ribbon is wrapped around every side. I tug and it loosens enough for me to pull it off. He takes the ribbon from me and smiles. I can’t wait to see what’s inside.

I rip the paper off, and open the tiny box, which is about the size of a ring box. I snap it open and inside are the most breathtaking miniature tea cups I have ever seen. Each cup boasts its own design, from a diamond interlaced with avocado bursts of color to a plain salmon ring decorated with bright red and blue flowers. What makes this even better is that each cup comes with a matching saucer. How did he know? I cover my mouth and the warmth of his jacket and him sitting beside me must have melted me enough to allow me to cry because the tears start to fall.

“I’m sorry, Candy, I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“No, it’s fine. Really.” I wave my hand in front of my mouth and hope snot doesn’t come next.

“I’ve seen these on your desk. You do collect them, right?”

I’m nodding but I can’t say anything. I can’t believe he thought of this, that he took the time to notice something so small and realize it, in fact, is something huge in my life. “When? How?”

“I practically live at your desk.”

So I’m not the only one who thinks this. I lower my head, wanting to avoid eye contact. How horrible it must be for him to spend his days fixing my computer. “Sorry.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I lift my head. He’s staring at me through wet glasses. Snow has begun to fall. “I look forward to your calls.”

“You do?”

He nods and reaches for his jacket again. “I need something else.” He warns me before reaching in, but he doesn’t have to do so. I wait as he sifts around in the pocket and pulls something out. “I didn’t see a mistletoe downstairs and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to catching you under one.” He raises the mistletoe above my head. “Is this okay?”

It’s more than okay. It’s what I’ve wanted and imagined for months. And there, underneath the moon, snow wrapped around us, lights twinkling in the distance, and in our ugly sweaters, our lips meet and all my holiday wishes come true.

About the Author

Tracy’s love of writing began at nine years old. She wrote stories about aliens at school, machines that did homework for you, and penguins. Now she pens books and short stories about romance. Whether it be romance or science fiction, she loves to stuff her nose in a good book. When not reading, you’ll probably find her crushing candy.

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http://www.tracykrimmer.com/newsletter

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It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chick Lit: A Holiday Anthology

  • ISBN: 9781370513444
  • Author: S.E. Babin
  • Published: 2016-11-01 14:20:41
  • Words: 127344
It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chick Lit: A Holiday Anthology It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chick Lit: A Holiday Anthology