Sunday, 24 October 2021

F Fic, Non-fic

Christmas Holiday Extravaganza!

2016 Extravaganza graphic

 

The First Noelle

by Delia Latham

Excerpt:

Hope Springs—5 miles

Noelle Joy struggled for breath that seemed inadequate. She gripped the wheel with white-knuckled fingers as her vehicle sped relentlessly toward the small, California mountain town that had been her home until a decade ago.

What are you thinking? Why would you ever return to the place where you suffered the worst indignity of your life? Even as the desperate questions spun through her mind on an out-of-control turntable, she launched into long-rehearsed relaxation techniques. One…two… three… Breathe in. Four…five…six… Breathe out. Breathe. Just. Breathe.

By the time the weathered “Welcome to Hope Springs” sign came into view, her emotions were well in hand. She was here to do a job—one that would look good in her bank account and on her résumé. And—since she insisted on honesty at all times, especially with herself—she had to admit the person at the other end of the contract added a certain appeal to this gig.

Noelle had dutifully researched the man after he’d contacted her, but there’d been no real need. Michael Holliday was becoming a household name. The talented FirstNoellearchitect had burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere and had won award after award in the years since his first design created an uproar in the industry. He somehow managed to steer clear of the ever-reaching tentacles of the press, but that phantom-like ability to avoid the spotlight only whetted the media’s collective appetite.

Holliday also drew notice by often, and generously, sharing the rewards of his labor. Charity organizations, large and small, benefitted from his wealth. Individuals and families in dire need had been blessed by generous checks delivered to their doors—all signed by Michael Holliday, all accompanied by simple notes that included well wishes, promised prayers, and requests to keep his donation downwind of the press. But happy, relieved people rarely kept that kind of blessing under wraps.

Aware of, but not able to track down the source of the mysterious gifts, the media had dubbed Holliday the Phantom Philanthropist.

Not a single photojournalist had ever captured a clear shot of the man. A few unrecognizable photos found their way into various publications, but none provided any real idea of his appearance. News articles offered only guesses as to where he lived, using vague terms such as, “Most likely somewhere in Northern California.”

Along with a stringent confidentiality agreement, Noelle had signed a contract that offered an incredible amount of money to create a decorating miracle in Holliday’s home. Having scribbled her moniker on “the dotted line,” she became one of the few people who possessed a physical address for Michael Holliday, Phantom Philanthropist and Architect Extraordinaire.

He did indeed live in Northern California—somewhere near Hope Springs, where Noelle had enjoyed a happy childhood, lived out teen years filled with love and romance…and suffered the most painful and degrading rejection any woman could endure. A good portion of the total population had witnessed her public rebuff—a bride in a church bedecked with Christmas finery, awaiting a groom who never showed.

She groaned as she pulled into her parents’ driveway for the first time in a decade. As much as she loved Mom and Dad, the prodigal’s return promised to be anything but joyful.

 


 

The Widow's Captive

by Lucette Nel

Excerpt:

Clear Creek County, Colorado

December, 1882

Cold air bit his cheeks as snow pelted him. Jonah Hale pinched the bridge of his nose in an effort to stifle a sneeze. He had to be a special kind of fool to allow the women of church to persuade him to plod through the woods on his horse during a brutal storm.

Not persuade. Bully.

He wiped his face with the back of his glove-covered hand. Men had lost their way in weather not half as bad. Had he known the storm would turn this fierce, he’d have waited a day or two. If he didn’t freeze to death, the miner, Don Hanson, might just put a bullet in him this time.

Feed the hungry. Help those in trouble.

Except for the occasional drink at Seth’s saloon, that old loon Hanson didn’t want anything to do with the residents of Hollow Creek. That’s why he stayed in the remote cabin.

Granted, under different circumstances, Jonah would’ve saluted the women’s concern over the miner, but it was difficult when heavy clouds and darkness loomed.

Shivering, he pulled the collar of his duster another notch higher and licked his quivering, parched lips. Please Lord, let me reach Don’s cabin before I freeze to death.

Freezing to death couldn’t be as bad as what Mattie had suffered. Images of the building collapsing stabbed Jonah. Emotion clogged his throat. He rocked in the saddle and shook his head. “Easy, boy. Don’t dump me now.”

The stallion snorted and its ears flicked to and fro.

Patting the muscled neck, Jonah blew out his breath. It appeared in front of his mouth in white puffs. Urging the animal forward, he lifted the lantern high to study the dark surroundings. The light did little to penetrate the dense shadows and massive swirling snowflakes. Annoyance at the cold bubbled inside him. Although born and raised in Colorado, he’d never witnessed anything quite like this. He ought to be in the boardinghouse, his mouth watering over the venison stew his aunt served on Mondays.

No use complaining. Here he was, fighting aggressive winds and guiding a horse through knee-deep snow. His stomach rumbled, taunting him for refusing the sandwiches his aunt offered on his way out. Just dandy, Jonah.

Frost gnawed at the tip of his nose and the wind pinched his ears, and he pulled his scarf up to cover the lower part of his face. Reared in Clear Creek County, he knew the woods as well as the star pinned on his chest, but in this weather, nothing appeared familiar. The possibility that he was lost mocked him. It was a harsh likelihood to face, considering he could barely make out a foot ahead. He squinted and, standing up in the saddle, studied the intimidating shapes of pines. Lord, I’d be obliged if You’d give me some kind of sign down here.

The blinding snow slowed for mere moments, enough to reveal a faint flickering in the distance.

WidowsCaptive“Hallelujah!” Jonah slapped the mount’s side. “We’ll be out of this storm in minutes.”

The light disappeared—blackness cloaked the world ahead of him once again. But not before he directed his horse toward the cabin. All around, tall evergreens swayed to and fro. A branch snapped nearby. He rested his hand on the butt of his holstered Colt as the hair at the back of his neck rose. The wind carried the howls of wolves, perhaps the very pack that had attacked a local peddler two nights ago.

His horse’s hind legs buckled and he fell hard onto his haunches. Jonah grabbed the saddle horn to keep himself from flying back. The stallion snorted and tossed its head.

“Come on, it’s not much farther, boy.” He dismounted. With the reins in one hand, he untied his saddlebags with the other and slung it over his shoulder. They trudged through the snow, leaving a track of foot and hoof prints in their wake.

A loud crack split the air. The stallion reared. Jonah fell back, dropping the lantern and missing a hoof by mere inches. Before he could grab the reins, the animal took off.

Jonah slapped the snow and pushed to his feet. The mount’s shape disappeared as darkness swallowed it. Lifting the lantern, he didn’t need to see it to know it was broken and no longer useful. He rounded his shoulders and, dipping his chin to his chest, resumed his journey toward the cabin marching like a wounded soldier.

Please let Don be sober.

The lean-to, warm from the fire in the cabin, welcomed him. Two paints lifted their heads at his entrance, ears twitching. A mule continued to eat its dinner at leisure. Impressive and well-looked after animals. No wonder he saw a light. Someone had filled up the hay and poured fresh water for the animals. Had Don bought horses? Nah. He thought them ornery. Maybe he was sheltering travelers.

Jonah stroked one paint’s side. How long would he have to stay cooped up with crazy Don?

Wrapping his arms around his chest against the vengeful wind, he hurried to the door and pounded on it. “It’s me, Jonah Hale.”

The wooden slab creaked open on leather hinges. No sooner had he set foot inside, when his boot caught and he went tumbling forward. His hands and knees connected with the cold floor. Before he could gather his wits, excruciating pain exploded in the back of his head and shot down his neck. All energy left his body. Stars flecked his vision and he crumpled to the floor.

****

 


 

Worst Christmas Ever

by Mallary Mitchell

Excerpt:

The soft white fabric beckoned. Should she—

“Sara Jane?” Her five-year-old cousin called up the stairs.

“I’ll be down in a moment. Finish your movie.” In the privacy of her attic bedroom, Sara Jane Connolly wiped her tears and gave in to temptation. She pulled the wedding dress over her head covering her tank top and jeans. She wouldn’t be wearing the shimmering, bead-encrusted, perfectly-fitted fairytale dress tomorrow because her fiancé had dumped her yesterday.

So had her family, essentially. They’d gone to the Christmas village without her “because she’d just be a dampener on their trip to see the holiday lights.” Her heartache hadn’t stopped Mom from volunteering Sara Jane to babysit Sam. Evidently, she wouldn’t dampen the spirits of a five-year-old.

Sara Jane sighed. At least Brad hadn’t waited until she was walking down the aisle to drop the news. “Yo babe, I found someone else.”

OK, so Brad didn’t really talk like that. In reality, he hadn’t said anything at all. He’d texted her. Yesterday morning.

Her tears stopped falling as the dress’s progress came to a full stop. She tugged a bit more.

Had she gained weight? Memories of yesterday’s chocolate cake taunted her. Nope…this had fit perfectly at her last fitting. Once she got it to past the band of her bra it would be—

Stuck.

She couldn’t breathe.

The dress had been roomy ten days ago. Now, she stared into the antique oval mirror as best she could through the neck of the dress. Sara Jane made a frantic turn, first right and then left, trying in vain to get a grip on something to pull. Her hands poked from the sleeves like the tiny limbs of a rampaging T-Rex.

Breathe, Sara Jane. Being slightly claustrophobic, her heart raced. Adrenaline surged through her veins. She tugged some more.

Sara Jane attempted to shimmy from the dress. She tried to pull it down farther. No luck. Maybe if she could back out… She tripped over a box and landed hard on her backside.

“Sara Jane what was that big boom?” Samuel’s footfalls sounded

“I fell.” And the boom wasn’t so big.

“Oh.” Samuel answered. His voice louder now. “When are we going to eat?”

She tried to turn the dress. Maybe if she could get her elbow through the unzipped back…

She couldn’t see but heard Sam padding toward her.

“I’m starvin’.” The loud gurgle of his stomach punctuated the claim.

The dress turned slightly, but wouldn’t budge up or down. She strained her neck and peered through the opened zipper portal with one eye.

“Mommy says its dinner time when my tummy growls.”

Another loud gurgle followed.

“I’m starvin’ again.”

“I’ll get your chicken fingers as soon as I get this dress off.” Chicken fingers sounded disgusting. Who really wanted to eat fingers? Chickens didn’t even have fingers. They had toes—

She stopped. What was it one was supposed to do to remain calm? Oh yeah, breathe deeply.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Sam’s gaze raked over her. His mouth hung open. His eyes were wide.

“Sam, can you grab the sleeves and pull?”

“Are you stuck?”

Calm. Exude calm. “Yes, I am.”

At five years of age Sam wouldn’t be much help, but maybe, just maybe, he could change the direction of the force, and her arms would be free of the shrink-wrappedWorstChristmasEver sleeves. Then, maybe she could extricate herself from the constricting band of the bodice, and breathe.

That was a lot of maybes.

Sweat pooled in her armpits. Pressure built behind her eyes and made her temples throb. Her venture now had her trussed like tomorrow’s celebratory turkey. She might as well be in a strait jacket…her breathing hitched up another notched. “Pull, Sammy!”

She whined and he grunted.

Her composure was failing. She now felt faint.

She was going to die in this dress. There would be urban legends years from now about a jilted bride who died so tragically that sometimes you could still see her on this very spot, wailing through an open slit in the dress that suffocated her. Lord, help me out of this mess. I’m obviously losing my mind.

Sara Jane spied her cellphone and jerked her head—not just her head because one couldn’t move just the head while wrapped up like a mummy in a bad 1950s B-movie—in the general direction. “Bring me the phone.”

“I know just what to do.” The light of discovery on Sam’s little face gave her hope that she would not die this Christmas Eve eve from being squeezed to death by her own wedding gown.

Sam grabbed her phone, padded down, and then up the stairs. As he drew closer she made out that the muffled voice on the other end was male, but she couldn’t catch his words, so she listened to the one-sided conversation.

“Yes, um, this is Samuel McKay.” He paused and nodded. “Uh huh. Sure is. Sara Jane is in the attic and she’s really, really stuck. We need the jaws of life.”

“Sammy?” Sara Jane called. “Honey, what number did you dial?” Her tone dropped to one of utter horror…to whom was he speaking when he’d said she needed the “jaws of life”?

“Yes sir, that’s her.”

“Yep, it’s just me and Sara Jane, ’cause everybody else went out to see the Christmas lights, and Aunt Augusta told Mama she didn’t want me runnin’ around that place like a wild little animal, and since Sara Jane said she’d rather walk on hot coals than go out, Aunt Augusta said Sara Jane could keep me here and we watched that movie you know the one about the dog who—” Sam nodded again. “Yes.”

Obviously Uncle Brendan, the editor of a newspaper, hadn’t taught his son the concept of a full stop in speech. Talk about a run on sentence.

Sara Jane made a Houdini-esque attempt to free herself.

Dear Lord, I know I’ve not been praying enough or going to church enough, but could You please help me? Help me get out of this. I need help here.

“Samuel Elijah McKay, is that your mom?”

“OK.” Sammy hit the disconnect button on the phone. “He’s on his way.”

“Did you call your daddy?” Uncle Brendan would never let her forget this…ever.

Her little cousin began telling her about something or other, and she just smiled and tried to keep breathing. It was becoming increasingly difficult.

“Sara Jane, I’m here to save you.” The sardonic soft male voice didn’t belong to her sister or her uncle. “Sam?”

“Here. We’re in the attic.”

That was quick. The floor creaked with steps from someone much larger than Sam.

“Where is—Sara Jane?”

Max. His baritone voice washed over her. He must have been at his parents’ house across the street. She felt the heat of his body as he stood close. She looked one-eyed through the open zipper again into familiar caramel eyes.

Lord, I’m ready to go now. Take me, please.

“I thought you’d fallen through the ceiling the way he was talking.” He turned a three-sixty. “Wow, you made this into your room. It’s really nice now. Did you plan the renovation?”

“Yeah. Mom gave me carte blanche. So I did a few updates. Are you home for Christmas?” She tried to ignore the fact her muscles were now starting to spasm and she was still stuck in a wedding dress. She truly wished the attic floor would open and swallow her.

Maxwell Dixon knelt. As if assessing her situation, his dark eyes narrowed. His face held an unreadable expression. “Wow.” He put his hand to his chin. “I’m assuming this is—was your wedding dress.”

“You knew?”

“Of course, I knew.”

“Can you get me out of this? Please.”

“I don’t know.” Now the corners of his mouth tipped in an ever-so-slight smile. “This is such a picture-worthy moment.”

A little smirk showed on the face she knew as well as her own, right down to the little scar above his lip where a baseball had hit him smack in the mouth when he was sixteen.

 


 

Bella Natale!

by Marianne Evans

Excerpt:

Ashley Coratini sat on a ledge at the center of the Ponte Vecchio that jutted outward from the base of the structure and left just enough room to position her back comfortably against cold, time-worn stone and dangle her legs. Somewhat of a daredevil perch, to be sure, leaving herself suspended some one hundred feet or so above the churning surface of the Arno River; but the view was unusual, and stunning. Sketchpad open across her lap, charcoal pencil in hand, she tucked a rippling curl of hair beneath the edge of her knit cap, focus trained on a greenish-brown mountain scape that framed the horizon just beyond the curves of the river. Beneath her feet, water rushed and tossed. Returning to her sketch, Ashley lost herself in the euphoria that always accompanied a particularly eloquent art session.

Firenze.

Paved by narrow roads of ancient brick and stone, hemmed in by shops, homes, natives and tourists, this city of Medici—Florence, Italy—was the perfect place to re-find herself. God knew she needed to figure out the road ahead…and soon.

“Take the ticket. Take the chance. Don’t think, and don’t second guess. Go. Do it. You’ve been chasing God’s call for far too long. Stop listening to the voices of the ones who are trying to get in the way and listen to what He says. Don’t let what’s happening to your world on the outside affect who and what you are on the inside. Go.”

Nonna Rosa’s promptings had been right, of course; more to the point, her grandma’s generosity allowed Ashley to free-fall into a much needed season of self-exploration. She had studied here for six weeks during her junior year of college, during a study abroad session wherein she had immersed herself thoroughly in art and Italian history. Returning to Firenze in many ways felt like returning home.

A stiff wind kicked across her skin, leaving a chill. The December air almost tasted of snow. When the corners of her pad lifted, Ashley smoothed the edges and continued to sketch—a spray of lines, a dash of shapes and shadows, a subtle blend of charcoal into the page, just enough contrast to create the illusion of light. She sank into the evolving image, lost to the world, thinking. She hadn’t meant to let outside influences dictate the pattern of her life. She hadn’t meant to let any form of naysaying—however well-meaning—keep her from the life she craved. So, she had accepted her grandmother’s gift of three weeks in Italy, opting to take that leap and rediscover Florence with a full and eager heart, eyes trained only on the future.

BellaNataleEarly afternoon light shimmered off the surface of the water; Vespa cycles sped past at horrific speeds and angles, their shrill engines cutting the air, adding texture to the sound of lilting Italian. Seemingly undeterred by an ominous forecast, crowds milled past on the walkway just above and behind Ashley’s spot.

A second blast of cold air roused her senses, eliciting a responsive chill. It was almost time to call it quits and perhaps spend an hour or two like any other tourist in Florence, exploring quaint, inviting shops and indulging in a hot meal, but in the distance, she spied the magnificent Duomo. Shifting from black- to gray-tinted charcoal, she went to work capturing its shape, the shading of its cupola, the lines and angles of its façade, before surrendering her artistic efforts for the time being.

~*~

The first thing Luca DeRosa noticed about the stranger was her hands. Perched just below him, on a ledge of the Ponte Vecchio, a waifish, brunette stroked swift, confident lines across the surface of a wire-bound sketch pad centered across her lap. Fluid grace punctuated the way she crafted a scene of the Arno, bringing her vision to life with a level of detail and eloquence that pulled him to stay put and absorb. Engrossed, she paused infrequently, just long enough to give brief study the world around her—the inward roll of fat, moisture-laden clouds, the dancing spikes of sunlight that intermittently pierced the cover of gray—before returning to her drawing.

What a gift.

The three words sounded through his spirit like a gong, eliciting a craving, the tantalizing curves of a wistful dream…

The creationist that had always resided in Luca’s soul admired the woman’s skill. Ever a tactile person, he continued to watch the way she used the tips of long, slender fingers to blend and shade. Her gentle strokes evoked a responsive warmth that built at his chest and flowed through his gut—launching the kind of intrigue and hunger only a fellow artist would truly understand, for the hunger he felt wasn’t merely physical, it seeped through the farthest reaches of his senses in a call that left behind an empty ache. A longing.

That fact alone should have prompted him to a hard pull-back from a reckless topple into attraction. Hadn’t his heart just been extracted with nothing more than a blunt spoon? Hadn’t he just traded one hope, one dream, for another?

Luc blinked, regrouped, and took a deep breath of cold air spiced by the promise of a December snow to come. Forecasters projected a blanket of white would soon cover the cobbled streets, slated rooftops and dormant balconies of Florence. He refocused when the artist stood, carefully, since her perch was somewhat narrow and precarious. She lifted onto the wide cement rail that served as a lookout post along this particular stretch of Florence’s most historic and storied bridge.

When she swung her legs over, Luc ignored an instinct to withdraw and instead stepped forward.

 


 

Christmas 'Couragement

by LoRee Peery

Excerpt:

Prologue

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.

~ Romans 12:16

15 Years Ago

“He needs ’couragement.” Zoe ignored the walk light and stopped at the curb.

Her best friend, Meredith Gorgeous, went on ahead.

Would Mom be mad if Zoe talked to the man on the bench?

His crossed arms told her that he sought warmth from the ragged blanket, which was too small to cover the front of his body. Though his knees were pulled up, the metal bench had to be ice cold. Did the poor man have anyone to share Christmas with?

From the corner of her eye she caught Liam stay his sister with a hand, and return her to Zoe’s side, where Meredith stood rooted. Zoe felt the heat of Liam’s heart-stopping blue eyes as he looked down at her.

“What kind of crazy word is ’couragement?”

Meredith jerked from her brother’s touch and bumped into Zoe. “Just because you’re a teenager now, Liam, doesn’t mean you can pull me around.”

Zoe liked Liam’s protection. She’d never been afraid walking with Meredith in downtown Lincoln. On Saturday afternoons, he often escorted them from a movie to the SUV where Mrs. Gorgeous waited.

“I’m obeying Mom, Meredith. And Zoe, that stranger might be as crazy as the word you used.”

The heat of Liam’s attention pulled Zoe’s gaze off the homeless man. She raised her eyes and had to tip back her head. Liam’s handsome face was capped by dark blond hair that brought his last name to life. He’d grown again since school began. She looked down to listen to what he said without being distracted by staring up at him.

“You’re in the fifth grade now, way too old to not say the word correctly.”

Her heart did a flip-flop at the sound of his deep voice. They’d never be in the same school again. Next year he’d go to high school at the same time she and Meredith advanced to middle school.

“Let her be, Liam.” Meredith hit him on the shoulder. “So what if she says the word without the beginning letters? I want to always be a little girl at heart.”

Zoe reached for Meredith’s hand. “That man on the bench. He’s sad. He’s cold and alone. I want to make a Christmas card to ’courage him.”

“OK, squirt.” Liam circled her tender earlobe, freshly pierced. “I got it. You want to encourage the man to make him feel better.”

“Right. Could you ask your mom to take us to the craft store on the way home so Meredith and I can make a card tonight? Let’s look for him next week after the movie.”

That night, the girls sat at Zoe’s kitchen table, which was covered with scrapbooking materials. “Meredith, since Mom works at the hospital on Saturdays, I’m glad your mom drives us. Do you think Liam will walk us girls around a couple blocks by the theater? I’ll pray first on Friday night.”

“I’ll pray, too. I want to give this card I’m making to just the right person.”

Zoe worked her tongue while she cut silver paper. “Did you see the face of the man on the bench today?”

“I did. He made me think of Santa Claus.” Meredith swung her heavy, long braid over her shoulder.

“It shouldn’t be hard to find him with that white beard. I want this card to go to him. I wish I was older and had a job so I could buy him a big blanket to keep him warm.” Zoe handed the scissors to Meredith.

“You look for him. I want to look for a raggedy woman. Maybe even someone who has a place to sleep at night, but looks lonely and lost. God will show me if a sad lady needs Christmas cheer from my card all decorated like a beautiful tree.”

“I have an idea.” Zoe reached for gold foil and a snow-white sheet of paper. “Let’s each make a card and then make one together. That way we can give out three cards for three Saturdays.”

“You work your favorite number nine into everything you do.” Meredith uncapped a bottle of silver glitter. “That’s OK. We don’t have enough time to make twenty cards.”

“You’re my best friend, Meredith Gorgeous, but I’ll never understand why your favorite number is twenty.”

“Why does anybody have a favorite number?” Meredith straightened the table mess.

Three weeks later, the girls waited inside the lobby for Liam. He and his friends had met for a sci-fi movie, yet to end. Meredith bopped to a tune plugged into her ear.

Zoe scanned past the movie posters, and sighed at the sight of Liam loping down the corridor. Her mom said she was too young to read romance novels, but as long as they were Christian and her mom had already read them, it was OK. Every hero in every book she read had Liam’s face. She’d never told Meredith the way Liam made her feel. He was strong and protected them. He did funny things to her insides, and she often didn’t know what to say or do. He thought she was his sister’s best friend, and nothing more. I want to marry Liam someday.

He approached and yanked out Meredith’s earbud.

Zoe waited, but he didn’t look at her.

He waved to his friends as they headed for a different exit.ChristmasCouragement

Outside the theater, the girls held hands, Liam walking behind so it didn’t appear as though the three were together.

A homeless man pushed off the wall of the building and into their path. “You girls are angels.”

Liam’s shoes slapped on the sidewalk as he ran to catch up. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders, preventing them from getting too close to the man.

Zoe smiled at the man who wore a light jacket over a frayed, hooded sweatshirt that looked more gray than black. “We’re not angels, we’re ’couragers.”

“I like that better. It takes courage to approach a reprobate like me. I’m not gonna hurt them, laddy. You girls encouraged me last week by that beautiful gold angel card. Prettiest thing my hands have held in a long, long time. You gave me hope, so much I’m gonna clean up and find a church Christmas Eve.” He gave a slight bow and moved aside.

The girls didn’t say a word as they walked the two blocks to the SUV.

Liam clambered into the front.

Zoe waited to open the door. “Meredith, let’s always remember each other at Christmastime.”

“Why would we forget? We’re best friends forever. How could we forget each other?”

“I don’t know.” She braved a look at Liam through the window, where he slouched in the seat, drumming his fingers on his knee. “He always keeps us safe when we walk downtown.” I’ll never forget Liam, either.

1

Present Day

Zoe closed the door on a lilting Irish version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and set her coffee on a hard plastic table outside the coffee shop. The only one brave enough to sit outside on this December day, she folded her heavy scarf to cushion the icy seat. She put on her left glove and lifted the cup with her right, arrested by the sight across the street.

A guy sat at the cement base of a street light strumming a guitar, his case open to passersby. It wasn’t the busker who caught her attention, but the man who’d stopped, staring down at the guitar case. So lost in her study of the man, she burned her mouth as she touched the fragrant brew with her lips.

She couldn’t take her gaze off him, convinced something about the man was familiar. Her mind traveled back. Instead of the guitar player, she envisioned a hunched man with a white beard and a conversation with her best friend Meredith and her brother, Liam. Zoe sipped a cautious taste of her chocolate-flavored coffee and made sure it didn’t drip as she set it back down.

 


 

Christmas Lights

by Tanya Hanson

Excerpt:

Oh…the holidays. Like fallen stars, the ranch house’s million Christmas lights sparkled against the night. Lori swallowed hard as she turned into the long drive leading into Hearts Crossing. Peace, plenty. Comfort and joy. And she felt none of it.

ChristmasLightsHer heart had pounded the whole way from town and all but climbed up her throat now. Could she and Scott have found happiness at this beautiful ranch? She’d ever know. Kyle had ruined everything.

“Oh, Auntie, it looks like all the stars at once.” Lori’s little niece reached for her.

“Yes, it’s beautiful.” She meant it, but the dark memories clouded her vision. With a harsh breath, she braked slowly through the slushy road. Yes, she and Scott Martin had been quite the item that summer five years ago. Before it all happened. Before Kyle.

Miriam clapped her hands, brought Lori into the moment. “Oh, I love Christmas parties.”

Lori didn’t. But representing her family tonight was something she couldn’t avoid. The Hearts Crossing Ranch Christmas party was the social event of the holiday season.

“Well, it isn’t time for presents tonight,” she said finally. “But the Martins will have plenty of food and fun.”

The Martins. For a time or two that summer, Lori had thought she’d become one of them. That’s how her twenty-one year old mind had worked back then. Until Kyle. Kyle…her breath hitched. Scott. He had forgiven her and was a happily married dad now. But still…

Driving beneath the horizontal wooden beam hung with the ranch’s brand calmed Lori a little. Outlined in white lights and wrought in iron, two intersecting hearts with a cross uniting them conveyed what the Martin clan was all about: love and faith. If she’d only trusted God after that horrible night in Boulder.

Tears heated her eyelids one more time.

“The lights look like a jillion fireflies!” Miriam’s excitement bounded around the car, and Lori halted her thoughts of the past. Wasn’t Christmas the time of good news?

 


 

Down in Yon Forest

by Clare Revell

Excerpt:

“Are you sure you want me to go in your place, Grannie?” Meredith Stranraer sat on the couch in her grandparent’s front room and fastened her boots, making sure the laces were double tied. The winding forest paths were uneven at the best of times and last thing she wanted was the laces coming undone on her way home. “I mean, you’ve gone every year since the Christmas Ball was first held and—”

“That’s why, dear. Besides, between Gramp’s rheumatism and my arthritis, I think our dancing days are over.” Grannie laid a cool hand on Meredith’s arm. “Did I ever tell you that’s where we met?”

Meredith glanced up from her laces in amazement. “No, you didn’t.”

Grannie nodded. “The annual Paradise Christmas Ball is where I laid eyes on your grandfather for the very first time. Since then we’ve had fifty-three long and happy years together.”

“Emphasis on the long,” Gramps, the town constable, interjected.

“And you’ve enjoyed every moment of it, same as I have.” Grannie shot him a look that was meant to make Gramps refrain from any additional comments. “Just like you, I didn’t even want to go to the ball. I had better things to do with my time in those days than fritter away an entire evening at a charity fundraiser set around blind dates. In those days it was quite scandalous.” She patted Meredith on the shoulder. “You look worried. It’s all in good fun. You’ll have a wonderful time. I just know it.”

“I don’t know…” Truth be told, she’d rather go to the dentist and that was saying something. She’d come here to regain her footing after parting ways with the orchestra. Well, maybe not so much regain her footing as to hide, and Grannie was having none of that.

“Anyway, my mother persuaded me to go—” Grannie continued, and Meredith was sure most, if not all, of her grandmother’s enthusiasm was for her benefit. “—and it was nowhere near as bad as I had feared. There was music, carols, a tree, lots of decorations, and mistletoe over the doorway. The conversation around the table was enjoyable, even entertaining. It turned out that my dinner date for the evening was none other than your grandfather.”

“Was it love at first sight?”

A hint of color touched Grannie’s cheeks. “It most certainly was not.”

Gramps roared with laughter. “Despite the fact I did get a kiss under the mistletoe, she thought I was coarse, rude, arrogant, and…Oh, what was it, dear?”

“Too darn handsome for your own good.” Grannie pursed her lips. “It took him a long time to persuade me otherwise.”

Meredith’s interest piqued. She couldn’t imagine her grandmother at her own age. “Oh?”

“After that, I kept asking her to dinner until she agreed, just to shut me up.” Gramps winked. “Her exact words, if I recall the conversation correctly. But once she got DownYonForestto know who I was, then I simply bowled her over with my charm, and sense of humor. Not to mention my car.”

“Your car?” Had she misheard?

Gramps nodded. “None of her friends’ boyfriends owned a car. I always was a master at one-upmanship.”

“That makes me sound superficial.” Grannie huffed.

Gramps kissed her. “And I love you regardless.”

“Tell me again how it works?” Meredith asked quietly as her grandparents snuggled.

“Everyone picks a number from a bowl. The person with the same number is your dinner date for the evening. There are several dances after the meal, nothing fancy, so you don’t need to worry about not knowing how to tango. Or even waltz, come to that, and then you go home. If you really don’t like the bloke you’re paired with, you never have to see him again.” Grannie paused. “Unless he’s as stubborn and persistent as your grandfather is.”

Meredith managed not to sigh in relief. She might be able to manage that. Crowds and strangers weren’t her strong point. But it was only one evening and a Christmas party to boot.

“Anyway, it’s all arranged. Caitlyn will pick you up at half-past six. She’s staying with her parents over in Turningdale. I know you and she were friends at school, so I thought it’d be fun for you to go with someone you know.”

More like acquaintances now. She and Caitlyn been best mates at boarding school, but had hardly seen each other since. A few e-mails now and again, along with birthday and Christmas cards, weren’t exactly conducive to a deep and meaningful friendship, but at least there would be one person at the ball she’d know, even if this random seating idea meant the chances of them sitting together were impossibly small. Perhaps the two of them could sneak off early and catch a film or something instead.

Yes, if the dates were boring, they could do the time honored trick of sneaking out to the bathroom one at a time and not coming back. The same way they’d done on numerous occasions at school functions they’d found boorish.

Meredith stood and slid her bag diagonally over her body before reaching for her new red cloak. It had been an early Christmas present from her grandparents. They always gave her the same thing, but she found cloaks far more comfortable than any coat or jacket she’d ever owned. This one was knee length and more practical than the full length one she’d had previously. Her fingers ran over the embroidered daisy chain that lay over her heart.

Gramps rose. “I’ll drive you home, Meredith.”

She shook her head. “Thank you, but there’s no need. It’s a lovely crisp winter’s afternoon out there, and I love walking in the forest. The main road is a fifteen-minute walk from here and then just twenty minutes home.”

“The woods aren’t safe—” Grannie began.

“There is no monster lurking around the trees to eat people, Grannie. That only happens in fairytales. I’ll be home well before dark. You worry far too much.” She leaned over and kissed her grandmother’s cheek. “Stay in the warm.”

“If I worry it’s only because I love you.

 


 

Sugar Cookie Kisses

by Mary Manners

Excerpt:

SugarCookieKissesKaty Sullivan bobbled double-stacked bins of sugar cookies as she navigated the crowded school hallway. Holly Haven Elementary School’s Christmas Family Night was cranking up to full-speed-ahead, and she wondered once again how her sister had talked her into spending the better part of a busy work day baking her special recipe cookies for this event. It wasn’t as if Katy didn’t already have enough to fill her to-do list; managing her Main Street Boutique kept her especially busy this time of year, with holiday shoppers hunting for the perfect gifts.

“Oh, good…you made it.” Liz rushed up to greet her, and snatched one of the plastic bins from Katy’s arms. Liz lifted the lid, inhaled appreciatively. “Oh, these smell heavenly, and just when I was beginning to worry you’d burned the sweets.”

“Me…burn my soon-to-be-famous, top-secret-recipe cookies?” Katy blew out a breath, desperately trying to move the strands of hair that spilled across her forehead to tickle her cheek. “Never. Surely you know better that that.”

“Well…the thought did cross my mind—for a second or two. After all, we all have our off days.” Liz rolled her eyes. “I had one yesterday, and I hope I’ve fully recovered.”

 


 

Radio Wave Romance

by Katie Clark

Excerpt:

Annalise pulled two steaming cups close as she scooted past a coworker in the hallway. Sam stood down the hall at the door of the studio, with her hands on her hips and an exasperated expression on her face.

“You’re on in thirty seconds!” Sam’s call from the end of the corridor urged Annalise forward.

“I’m coming!” She rushed as Sam shook her head and hurried inside.

Annalise could almost hear her thoughts: Why can’t that girl make it on time?RadioWaveRomance

She set her coffee at her desk and hurried to Sam’s side to offer a hot chocolate peace offering. “You know I love you,” she said with a wink. Then, she slipped into her own side of the two-room studio and grinned across the glass at Sam.

Sam smiled and rolled her eyes as Annalise jerked the headphones into place. “You’re on in five, four, three, two, one.” Her voice carried through the small pass-through that had been cut out from the bottom of the window separating the rooms.

“Good morning, sleepy Salem! Welcome to Mornings with Annalise. This is Annalise Waters. We’ve got traffic on the hour, and we’ll be taking calls at twenty after. Until then, enjoy a commercial-free music marathon.”

“Clear,” Sam said. She leaned back in her seat and shook her head, her long, graying curls bouncing around her shoulders. It was only the twinkle in her eye that gave away her true feelings—she could never be mad at Annalise. At least, that’s what Annalise liked to tell herself.

“Why do you insist on doing this to me?” Sam teased.

Annalise bit her lip and then blew on her still-too-hot coffee. “Sorry. I really needed my caffeine. And I brought you your favorite!”

Sam chuckled. “You better be glad that I love you back. Now take off your coat.”

“I’m glad for your love every single day.” Annalise removed the heavy coat, hung it on her chair, and then flipped through the day’s script.

Script was a loose word. It was more like a few notes scribbled on a piece of paper from Sam’s husband’s hotel letterhead. Some days it was longer, but today, the checklist was short, just a few points she should touch on throughout the show.

“Are you ready for the caller hour?” Sam asked. “Last week was a bit of a disaster.”

“I can’t help it when people want to argue with me,” Annalise defended herself.

 


 

Gumbo Weather

by Marian P. Merritt

Excerpt:

“No, no. Noooo.” Noel Winters smacked the dashboard of her compact car. “You can’t go out on me now.” She tapped the check engine light in hopes that the annoying yellow glow would disappear. No such luck. A quick scan of the area melted her confidence. Nothing but semi-darkness and pine trees. She’d veered off the interstate twenty minutes ago. Only another five miles to Bijou Bayou.

“I hope you’re worth it.” She’d conjured up several scenarios of what it would be like to finally meet her father. With the possibility a soon-to-be reality, her fears ran amok. Would he acknowledge her as his daughter? Would he like her? So many what ifs. And now, the list seemed miles longer than it did seventeen hours ago when she’d left Colorado.

“C’mon, phone. Where are you?” She rummaged through the fast food bag and the granola bar wrappers strewn on the passenger seat. The sound of her purse’s contents falling onto the floorboard sent her heart deeper into despair.

Her fingers grazed the slick LED screen. Yes. A quick swipe and her last hope diminished along with the setting sun. Urgh. Dead. Why hadn’t she plugged it in earlier?

GumboWeatherWith only a sliver of light from the darkening sky, she gathered her fallen items, her over-packed suitcase, and the last tidbit of courage, and started down the narrow road leading to the small town where the Internet said her father lived.

The deafening chirps of crickets and the deep-throated croaking of frogs, once pleasing during her summers spent in South Texas, now reverberated in the night like the warning calls of angry gangs ready to pounce. The muggy, humid air tugged at her hair, makeup, and clothes. She wiped beads of perspiration from her forehead and forged ahead.

As the last strands of daylight disappeared behind the tall pines lining the road, eerie shadows played havoc with her resolve. A crackling noise in the brush sent her heart racing—a perfect hiding place for a mask-clad, crazy man wielding a chainsaw. Yet, with the herd of mosquitoes buzzing her head, she couldn’t hear a chainsaw should one be running right in front of her. A chill snaked along the back of her neck.

Only five miles. She could do this.

She trudged forward. Two steps later, she sunk into something soft and mushy. Warm ooze wrapped around the top of her foot. “Really? These are new loafers.” A tug only resulted in a bare, slimy foot.

Great. No phone, no light. She breathed in the saturated air filled with the odors of earth, pine, and musk. With one hand on her suitcase for support, she bent to begin her search. Slime—wet and slick covered her fingers. “Eeewww.” She dug deeper into the sludge. Found it. A slurping sound gurgled as the glob released her now-ruined flat.

“Gross.” The stench of decay filled the night air. Noel slid her muddy foot into the muddier loafer, and then wiped her fingers on the grass next to the side of the road. Probably a good thing she couldn’t see what she’d stuck her hand into. While ignorance could be bliss, in this case, it was nothing short of pure survival.

She propped her suitcase on the pavement once again and headed toward town. The mosquitoes began their shock and awe attack of dive-bombing the tender exposed skin of her face, neck, and forearms. Flailing her arms to bat away the unruly insects only resulted in bruises on her thigh from the uncooperative suitcase, and blisters on her foot from her ruined, gravel-filled, muddy shoe.

Her shadow played on the grass and asphalt of the narrow road as lights beamed from behind. “Could this be any worse?”

As it approached, a vehicle’s engine drowned the sounds of the Louisiana night and slowed next to her. Noel’s pulse pounded. She’d thought her fear ran amok before. Now it escalated to full-blown panic mode.

With nothing to use as a weapon, unless flinging a muddy flat-heeled shoe like a Ninja Star counted, she straightened her shoulders and marched on. Maybe if she appeared confident, the person in the car would ignore her.

Not likely, though. A girl walking on a dark road with a mud-covered foot and ankle, flinging one hand around her head while fighting a malfunctioning rolling suitcase with the other did not exude confidence. More like craziness. Maybe that would be enough to deter the driver.

How had she gotten into this unsettling position? Had her incessant need to find her father trumped her good judgment? Maybe, if she’d taken her usually reliable car in for a maintenance check before she left Colorado Springs, she wouldn’t be in this fix.

The long, white sedan slowed next to her. Should she stop? Or keep walking while focusing straight ahead? The passenger window lowered. A quick peek revealed an eerie green light casting shadows on the driver’s face.

 


 

With This Kiss

by Marianne Evans

Excerpt:

The Mercury Club

East Rutherford, New Jersey

December 21st—Ten Years Ago



Voices filled the banquet hall. Music and laughter resonated off the walls like the bell chimes of the season.

Scoping the room, Jonathan Santini accepted and dismissed people at a glance. He didn’t intend to stay long; he simply wanted to pay his respects to Rachel Alfano—affectionately referred to by those who knew and loved her as Grandma Rache. He’d spend some time with Grandma Rache and then call it a night. Social glitz had never been at the top of his favorites list, and he wasn’t really into mingling with the horde of family who had gathered for Grandma Rache’s eightieth Christmas.WithThisKiss

Jonathan’s visual wandering took in the long head table festooned with balloons and streamers of green and gold, red and white. His attention zeroed in on a spot to the far side of the room.

Exquisite.

The solitary word rode a tempting circuit through Jonathan’s mind. A solitary sensation filled his body. Lightning-sizzle.

She looked a bit younger than the type to usually hold his interest, but she took his breath away. Olive-hued skin suggested an Italian heritage. He focused on her bare, creamy arms and his fingertips twitched.

His gaze traveled the length of a thick column of dark brown hair that fell neatly to her waist and shimmered beneath the overhead lights. A few errant curls tumbled free from a pair of tiny, sparkling barrettes. The image prompted an ache to know more about her.

In manner and appearance, she struck him as a young woman of breeding and class, while he felt out of place in this sea of tuxedos, fancy clothes, and sparkly baubles. In fact, the longer he surveyed the scene, the more oppressive became the neatly knotted tie he wore. But he resisted the instinct to run a finger beneath his shirt collar. Instead, he straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin.

Settings like this left him edgy and tense. Frankly, he’d rather be in his commissioned post behind the counter of Rachel Alfano’s simple neighborhood grocery store. After all, he thoroughly enjoyed chatting up the slew of customers who relied on Rachel’s Deli for sundry items, fresh sandwiches, and all the latest neighborhood gossip.

He loved the store and Rachel Alfano, because Rachel returned that love ten-fold and unconditionally. That was her way. Would the rest of the Alfano family react in similar fashion? Blue collar versus white collar—with complex layers between the two? The answer to that remained to be seen.

He moved forward, captured by the pull of the mysterious woman’s large brown eyes. Wide and full, her mouth often fell into smiles as she chatted with a group who stood nearby. By way of contagious reaction, Jonathan smiled as well.

He watched her glide from her position at a built-in buffet table to stand close to Rachel’s side. She settled a hand lightly on the older woman’s shoulder—evidently his mystery lady knew Rachel quite well.

 

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