Normally on the second Monday of the month, I try to have a book review ready. But this month, I didn't have any Christmas books ready to review (and it seemed like the wrong time of year to review The Exorcist, which I recently finished), so in the absence of a book review, I thought it'd be fun to give you a sneak peek at my December writing challenge: a Hallmark movie-style book featuring Christmas, romance, small towns, and shenanigans - in short, all the sugary good stuff!
Behold, chapter one! I hope you enjoy - let me know your thoughts!
(Note: this is a work in progress, and has not been professionally edited yet. I try to be pretty thorough in my edits, but apologize for any spelling or grammatical errors.)
“Are you sure we don't need another Christmas tree?”
Maggie Roberts walked briskly down the bustling streets, expertly avoiding fellow pedestrians while managing to hold a tray with four different lattes, her over-sized messenger bag on one shoulder, a gaily beribboned-wreath under the other arm, and her cell phone pressed against her ear. She was four blocks from her office and ten minutes late, but as she was the boss, timeliness wasn't an issue. What was an issue was trying to talk into a cell phone while streets fairly screamed with holiday shoppers and Thursday morning traffic.
Perhaps this wasn't the best place to have this conversation. But when you feel as strongly as Maggie did about Christmas trees, you didn't always wait for a better time.
Her question was met with a grunt.
“We have eight already, Maggie,” came Joan Elizondo's dry response. “Even if we could fit more, which I don't see how we could, why would we need another?”
“Because-" Maggie came to a street and stopped just in time to avoid the traffic signal change. “Because it's only eight and there are nine letters in the word Christmas and I think…”
The ‘Don't Walk’ sign changed and pedestrian traffic surged forth. She was pulled along in the wake, jostled left right and center as seasoned city-dwellers mingled with – or tripped over - star-struck tourists, awed by the lights, the towering buildings, the glittering store windows offering everything from delicate French pastries and sturdy German-made wooden toys to the latest American fashions and Asian technology. Underfoot, the pavement was wet and lumps of tired, melting, dirty snow lined the streets. But overhead, lights and decorations filled the sky between the buildings. When night fell, as it would early this time of year, the whole city would light up into a twinkling magical space where, for a moment, the rat race would be forgotten and childhood memories revived.
But that would happen later. That gray and chilly Thursday morning, all Maggie wanted to do was get into her office without spilling her lattes on the outfit that was supposed to take her through the working day into the dinner meeting with a potential client that evening. The coat – long, red, and wool with a princess waistline – wasn't new and was now a little mud-spattered around the hem line. But it was her favorite and, more to the point, went perfectly with her shiny black boots and the brand-new, pine-green sweater dress she'd found only yesterday. It set off her curly blonde hair and green eyes perfectly and when she tried it on that morning, she knew exactly what her boyfriend Felix would say when he saw her in it: “Perfection!”
And then he'd beam in that kind, endearing way he had and she would feel, again, that yes, she'd managed to look the part of the successful business woman that she was.
So she wore the dress and decided that she would also wear it on their next date, which would be tomorrow night.
Now, overdressed, overloaded, and overcrowded, she began to wish she hadn't been so generous that morning.
But she didn’t really regret it. Her team had worked hard that year, pulling miracle after miracle and the occasional latte treat was a small way of thanking them. As for the over-sized wreath… well, she didn't have one for the office and the children from the Boys and Girls Club had been so cute trying to sell them…
She was dragged back into her phone discussion when Joan burst into ringing laughter. “Oh my goodness! Maggie, sometimes I swear, you are a Christmas elf!”
“You think I'm overboard?”
“Oh, honey, you were never even on the ship!”
“I'll have you know, people pay good money for my expert and impersonal decorating expertise!”
But Maggie couldn't help but smile. Joan's laugh, even at long distance, was infectious and before she knew it, she was laughing, too. She had turned a corner, off the main street into a quieter one, with fewer shops and more cafes. Here, despite the weather, benches and outdoor seating areas lined the walkways in front of the eateries. Maggie found a table in front of a restaurant that had yet to open and collapsed into a seat. She dropped her bag and her wreath and carefully placed the lattes on the table.
Joan, on the other end, drew in a long, shuddering breath and sighed happily. “Oh my gosh, I miss you and your insane devotion to the holidays. No one else in River Run even comes close.”
The very thought of Christmas in her hometown conjured a painful lump in Maggie’s throat. She forced her words past it: “What, has my mom gone all normal and minimalist?”
“Oh, heavens, not on your life! She's into Quirky now, so everything she has is a little… odd? I guess? I don't know, like, cute, but in a weird way. She dragged my dad to the Christmas tree lot with her this year and wouldn't let him leave until she found something that was a cross between a Charlie Brown tree and something the Whos would put in their town square.”
“That sounds perfectly like my mom.”
Maggie reached out and traced a heart in the snow on the tabletop. The flakes were soft, already melting away. Snow rarely stayed long in the city. What wasn't removed overnight by an army of dirty city tractors was often bested by the warmth of the buildings and activity. When Maggie felt melancholy, something she seldom allowed, she would think longingly of the long, cold, white winters in River Run, the small mountain town where she'd grown up.
I'll go back someday, she thought. I'll spend a white Christmas there.
The lump in her throat hardened.
“Are you okay, Mags?”
Joan's question caught her off guard. She shook off the melancholy and saw her receptionist, Ally Conley, coming down the street in the opposite direction. She lifted an arm and waved, relieved to have something to distract her.
“I'm great!” she said brightly. “Why do you ask?”
Joan did not sound convinced. Maggie repressed a sigh. Joan knew her as well as any sister would have, almost better than Maggie's own mother did. They had met in kindergarten and quickly became inseparable. They often joked that they were psychically connected, although in truth, they were so familiar with each other that it often took little more than an oddly worded text message for one to know that the other was upset.
It was a connection that Maggie treasured most days. Not today, though, when she was feeling somewhat at odds with the world, although she did not know why.
Ally Conley, her face bright and pink with cold beneath the hoodie, trotted up to Maggie. Maggie handed her the lattes and the wreath and said, “I'll be inside in a minute.”
“Almond or oat?” Ally asked.
“Oat, of course.”
“You're the best boss ever!”
Maggie laughed and waved her off. “Did you hear that, Joanie? I'm the best boss ever!”
“I'm not surprised,” was the dry response. “So, what's wrong, oh great bossy one?”
Maggie waited until Ally was a few steps away before answering.
“Nothing's wrong, really. I'm just…” she struggled for a word.
Sad? But she wasn't sad, not really. How could anyone be sad with a growing business, a tightknit group of workmates, a handsome and thoughtful boyfriend, and Christmas only two weeks away?
Melancholy? Christmas in the city was wonderful, a whirl-wind of parties and decorations and noisy, happy crowds. It was also one of her busiest times at work. Most of the physical decorating and planning for the holidays was already done – shop windows were always planned months in advance and executed Thanksgiving week, usually at night – but there were the odd upscale parties that needed doing and next year's planning to be done. And this year they had taken over the prestigious Forsyth New Years Eve Ball account, a feather in the agency's cap and a potential game-changer career-wise. Frankly, Maggie didn't have time to be melancholy.
Lonely? Oddly enough, that word struck a chord, one she immediately dismissed. How could she be lonely? She was in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world, her calendar was full of invitations from friends, clients, associates, and networkers, as well as her church events. And then, there was Felix, always ready with a dinner invitation or a romantic, impeccably planned date. She couldn't possibly be lonely.
“I'm just feeling… nostalgic,” she said at last.
Nostalgic was good. It was truthful, if not fully, and it was a safe word. A sentimental word, but a distant one. Everyone felt nostalgic. But hardly anyone did anything about it.
She went on, “You know – the holidays, the decorations, the food. It makes me think of Mom and you and the way holidays used to be.”
Okay, that admission was unexpectedly hard. Even as she spoke, the lump in her throat grew to an almost painful size.
Ten years in, she thought ruefully, and I'm still homesick.
She found herself wishing that she hadn't put on make-up that morning, so that she could rub her suddenly burning face with snow. Instead, she tilted her head up to the sky, where a few flakes fell like kisses on her skin. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Words that her mother had said, back when Maggie first told her of her desire to move to the city.
“You're making your dreams come true,” she'd said, holding both of Maggie's hands in her own as she spoke. “There's nothing more important than that.”
In the moment, it had seemed truthful. Now, on the brink of those dreams and years of work coming to fruition, Maggie found herself wondering.
Joan didn't answer right away. A long beat of silence stretched until Maggie couldn't stand the silence anymore.
“What, did I stun you?” she asked, lightly.
She pushed herself off the chair and started walking towards her office. Around her, the relatively quiet street was starting to wake up. The first restaurant workers were unlocking their doors or brushing off tables. A few children raced down the street towards the bus stop. And, right on time (if by on-time, one meant fifteen minutes late), Colin Taylor, Maggie’s chief assistant, was striding down the street towards their office building, his narrow face bent low over his iPhone.
Joan was hardly ever shy with her opinion and this hesitation made Maggie dread the next sentence.
“You can always come home, you know,” Joan said at last. “River Run hasn’t gone anywhere. We’re still here and, if the tourists are to be believed, we are actually a pretty nice bunch. Just sayin’. You can come home.”
Each word was like a brand in Maggie’s heart.
It isn’t that simple, she wanted to cry. It just isn’t that easy!
She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t even reassure Joan that she did, honestly, want to see her best friend again, that she missed Joan every bit as much as Joan missed her.
But Christmas in River Run?
Because River Run, in her mind, didn't only mean home and her mother and her best friend. It meant memories – it meant James.
Her eyes stung.
Stop it! You're over him!
She drew a breath. “I’d love to, Joanie, but…”
“But Felix finally proposed?”
“What?” That shocked Maggie and her answer was aggressive and quick: “No!”
"No?” Joan sounded surprised. “Really? Why is he dragging his feet?”
I'm not ready…
The answer was almost out of her mouth before she stopped it. Because if she said that, Joan's next question would be “Why?” and Maggie didn't have an answer to that. Felix was perfect. So why did the idea of a ring fill her with trepidation?
Once again, she went with the safe answer: “We haven’t been going out long, Joan and-”
And once again, Joan countered: “Two years? Long enough at your age.”
“Anyway,” Joan said airily, “if you aren’t even engaged to him, why not come home to your family for Christmas for once?”
“Joan! Come on, you know…!”
Joan cut in - “Yes, yes, yes, I know. ‘It’s my busiest season of the year, Joanie, and, anyway, I’ll see you on New Years!’ But I would like to tactfully point out that New Years is not Christmas and anyway, isn’t it about time that you dragged your fancy-pants lawyer boyfriend down here to see what the fuss is all about?”
“Felix? In River Run?”
Maggie couldn’t help but laugh. Joan, who had only met Felix once, when she came into the city for a girl’s weekend, naturally took this the wrong way.
“We aren’t that terrible, you know!” she said defensively. “He might actually like the hicks, once he got to know us.”
Maggie shook her head helplessly, then realized that Joan could not see it. “Oh, no, Joan, it’s not River Run! It’s Felix! Oh, he wouldn’t be able to stand a week of it.”
“What kind of a snob-?!”
“He is not a snob!” Now Maggie was on the defensive. How did one explain a man like Felix? Who was kind and sensitive and a cracker-jack lawyer with a steel trap for a mind and yet could not handle an overflowing toilet without running out to throw-up? Who was an excellent cook allergic to almost everything? Who had moved out of his apartment because he saw a mouse. Who couldn’t help but be right about most things, having read the encyclopedia as a child – twice. He wore expensive suits and, despite being a decent athlete, had been stunned and shocked when Maggie, in a fit of childish excitement, clocked him with a fluffy snowball.
He wouldn’t know what to do in River Run – and they wouldn’t know what to do with him.
“He’s… delicate,” she said finally, lamely.
“Melts in the snow?”
“He’s a city-man, through and through,” she returned. “I doubt he’s ever driven on an unpaved road, let alone shoveled one.”
“We do have paved roads here now. And electricity.”
“He’s allergic to horses.”
“Um, horses stay in their paddocks. They don’t exactly jump you in the alley ways that, by the way, we don’t have here.”
Maggie sighed. “Joanie…”
“Just invite him to the dance! There’s still plenty of tickets left and he’d only have to stay the one night. Heck, no one is using my Airbnb, I’ll give it to him, free of charge!”
“It’s completely horse and nut free and I promise he’ll have Wi-Fi so he won’t miss out on any zoom conferences with the Big City Judges. He’ll love it, we’ll love it, it’ll be great. Come on, Maggie, come home, please. I know she doesn’t say it, but your mother misses you.”
“My mother knows I’ll be home for New Years. And we talk almost every day.”
Joan groaned. “That’s not the same and you know it.”
Maggie growled, “I know, Joanie, but I can’t.”
“We all miss you – I miss you. It just isn’t the same since you left and, anyway, I don’t know how you can expect me to do the dance floor decorations without you.”
“You’ll be fine!” Maggie protested, but Joanie went right on as though she hadn’t heard:
“And we’ve gotten the biggest tree for the town square and you should see what the high school kids have done with the decorations! They bested anything we ever did. And we’ve expanded the coffee shop, Dad and me, and we are doing a caroling night with Rick on the piano and you should be here! I know Christmas is hard on you, but it’s been, what, twelve years and surely you can-”
Maggie’s voice was sharp, brittle, almost angry. She was standing in front of her office now, pacing as Joan had rambled on and on, fighting herself, fighting her memories, fighting her own desires, but that last comment was too much. Joan was one word away from talking about James.
Joan immediately stopped talking and in the silence that followed, Maggie heard her own rampaging heart and realized that she’d sounded far angrier than she’d meant to. She had sounded worse than angry. She’d sounded cold.
All this time, she thought, and I still can’t talk about it. What kind of person does that make me?
The silence stretched out. Neither hung up. Both knew that they wouldn’t. Many years ago, when it became apparent that their vocational choices were going to put them into different colleges, the high-school-aged ‘sisters’ had made rules:
One: Call each other at least once a week.
Two: Never end a conversation on bad terms.
Three: Tell each other everything.
As far as Maggie knew, she’d never broken them. Until… well, whenever coming home for Christmas came up.
Two out of three, Maggie thought. I can at least do two out of three.
“I’m sorry, Joanie,” she said softly. “I really am.”
A beat. Then, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said it.”
“It’s just…” a break in her voice “I really do miss you, Mags. It’s like… a part of me is missing when you aren’t here for Christmas.”
“I miss you, too. Really. I just…”
Can’t. I can’t go home again. I can’t go back and get hurt again. Not even for Mom. Not even for you. Loneliness is better than that.
“You have to look after you,” Joan interrupted her thoughts. “You have to do what’s best for you. I know that. I want you to, you know, live your life. But I want you to know, too, that whenever you’re ready, we are here. You can always come home.”
Maggie’s heart warmed.
“I love you, sis,” she said.
“I love you more.”
Maggie’s phone buzzed. When she pulled it away from her cheek, she saw a text from Ally: “Conference call with Audra Forsyth in ten minutes.”
Comfort washed over her like a wave. This was work – work was something familiar, something safe, something tangible and controllable. She was at her best when she was at work. Which, perhaps, said more than she cared to acknowledge about the rest of her life. But then again, not everyone was lucky enough to make a living doing what they loved and Maggie prided herself on never forgetting how blessed she really was.
She put the phone back to her ear in time to hear Joan say, “Work calls?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a big meeting today about that big society event on New Year's Eve. Which reminds me: I know exactly where to put the 9th tree, thank you very much – I’ll alter the layout and send it to you by noon.”
Joan laughed and in her laughter was the reassurance that all was, truly, well between them.
“Go and slay the day, kid,” she said.
“Go and make the world a better place,” she responded as she always did.
The two chosen sisters hung up and Maggie put her shoulders back, her head up, and pasted on a big smile.
It was time to go and conquer the city and make her dreams come true.