Saturday, November 8, 2014
Pocket Star-E books for the holidays (holiday romance specials)
SLACK FRIDAY: NOVEMBER 28, 2014
There are a multiplicity of great titles that are being put on special for this promotion. I am splitting the features so that it is not overwhelming so please check the blog over the next couple of weeks as I feature them on different days! Please click on the book cover or title to pre-order. (and don't forget, I get a small percentage if you do purchase through that link, so thank you!)
Avoid crazed shopping crowds!
Keep calm and carry on at home with these great
Merr-E Holiday Treats from Pocket Star eBooks!
November 17, 2014
In A Christmas Carol, evil Scrooge was shown the error of his ways by three helpful ghosts and vowed to become a better person. Bob Cratchit and his family benefited most from Scrooge’s change of tune—but what happened after the goose was given, and Scrooge resolved to turn over a new leaf? Tim Cratchit's Christmas Carol: The Sequel to the Celebrated Dickens Classic shows us Tiny Tim as an adult. Having recovered from his childhood ailment, he began his career helping the poor but has since taken up practice as a doctor to London’s wealthy elite. Though Tim leads a very successful life, he comes home at night to an empty house. But this holiday season, he’s determined to fill his house with holiday cheer—and maybe even a wife. When a single, determined young mother lands on Tim’s doorstep with her ailing son, Tim is faced with a choice: stay ensconced in his comfortable life and secure doctor’s practice, or take a leap of faith and reignite the fire lit under him by his mentor, Scrooge, that fateful Christmas so many years ago.
Dr. Timothy Cratchit emerged from his Harley Street office shortly after six-thirty in the evening. He was surprised to find that the yellow-gray fog that had blanketed London for the past week had disappeared, swept away by a biting north wind. He paused for a moment to gaze up at the stars, a rare sight in the
usually haze-choked city. Then, pulling his scarf tightly around his neck, he walked quickly down the steps and along the path to the curb, where his brougham waited. The horses, a chestnut gelding and another of dappled gray, stomped their hooves on the cobblestone pavement. They made an odd pair, but Tim had chosen them for their gentle nature rather than their appearance. As the doctor approached, his coachman smiled and swung open the side door. The coach’s front and rear lamps
barely pierced December’s early darkness.
“Good evening, Doctor,” the coachman said as Tim approached.
“Good evening, Henry,” the doctor replied. “How are you tonight?”
The coachman, who was tall and lean, wore a knee-length black wool coat and a black top hat, his ears covered by an incongruous-looking strip of wool cloth below the brim.
“Cold, sir,” Henry replied. Tim grasped the vertical rail alongside the carriage door and was about to hoist himself inside when he heard a shout. Stepping back from the carriage, he turned to his left, toward the direction where the sound had come from.
The gas lamps along the street penetrated just enough of the gloom to allow Tim to distinguish a figure hurrying toward him. As the person drew nearer, Tim could see that it was a woman, clutching a dirty bundle to her chest. Thousands of poor women in London made a meager living sifting through the city’s dustbins for usable items and selling them for whatever pittance they could fetch. The bundle this woman cradled so carefully probably contained an assortment of odd candlesticks, worn shoes, frayed shirts, and the like. Still, this was not someone who would normally frequent Harley Street.
“Wait a moment, please,” Tim told the coachman, resignation in his voice. He was eager to get home, and too tired to wait while the woman unwrapped the bundle. He reached into his trousers pocket, found a half crown and two shillings to give her so that she would continue on her way.
When the woman came to a stop in front of him, Tim noticed with surprise that she was young, perhaps twenty years old. She was small, not much over five feet tall, clad in a tattered dress covered by a dirty, threadbare gray blanket that she had fashioned into a hooded cloak. Her dark brown hair was matted
in greasy clumps, and a smudge of dirt smeared her right cheek. Her face, though it was beginning to show the premature wear of a hard life, was still quite pretty. She stood with her brown eyes downcast, silently waiting for Tim to acknowledge her.
“Can I help you, miss?”
“Thank you for waiting, sir,” the woman said, still struggling to catch her breath. “I was hoping that you could take a look at my son. He’s very sick.” She tugged back a corner of what appeared to be a piece of the same blanket that constituted her cloak to reveal the face of an infant.
Tim suppressed a groan. It had been a long day—all his days seemed long now—and he was eager to get home. “Come inside, please,” he instructed the woman. To Henry he said, “This shouldn’t take too long.”
Unlocking the office door, Tim went inside, lit a lamp, and then held the door for the woman and baby to enter. Inside, the woman gazed at him with an earnestness that aroused his sympathy.
“I’m very sorry to bother you like this, Doctor. I didn’t mean to come so late, but I had to walk all the way from the East End, and it took longer than I thought,” she explained. “I never would have found your office yet, except that a kind old gentleman asked if I was lost and then pointed me to your door. A
friend of yours, he said.”
“Well,” Tim replied in a reassuring tone, “you’re fortunate that I had to work late; I usually close the office at six.”
The woman shuffled her feet uneasily. “If it’s too late, sir, we can come back tomorrow.”
“No, no, that’s all right. Now tell me, what is the matter?”
“It’s my Jonathan, sir. He’s been sickly since birth, and now he’s getting worse,” she said. Tim noticed that her eyes were moist.
“Let’s take him into the examination room.” Tim led them in, lit the lamps. The woman laid the child on the table and pulled back the blanket and other wrappings. Tim was shocked to see that the boy was not an infant—his facial features were too developed—but he was clearly undersized, and Tim did not
dare hazard a guess as to his age.
“How old is the little fellow?”
“Three last summer, sir.”
Tim studied the boy. His eyes were open, brown like his mother’s, and though they gazed intently at Tim, the little body was limp. No mental defect, but something physical, and severe. Tim placed a thumb in each of the tiny hands.
“Can you squeeze my thumbs, Jonathan?” he asked. The boy did so, feebly.
“Very good!” Tim said. Jonathan smiled.
“I didn’t know who else to go to, sir,” the woman explained as Tim flexed the boy’s arms and legs. “There’s no doctors who want to see the likes of us, but then I remembered you, sir. You took care of me many years back, when I had a fever. You came by the East End every week then, sir, and took care of the poor folk.”
“I’m sorry, but I treated so many patients that I can’t recall you, Miss, ah, Mrs.—”
“It’s Miss, Doctor. Jonathan’s father was a sailor. We were supposed to marry, but I never seen him since before Jonathan was born. My name’s Ginny Whitson.”
It was already clear to Tim that the child, like his thin, almost gaunt mother, was badly malnourished. That accounted in part for his small size. Tim also noticed that the boy’s leg muscles were extremely weak. Jonathan remained quiet, looking at the strange man with a mixture of curiosity and fear.
“Does Jonathan walk much?” Tim asked.
“No, sir, never a step. He could stand a bit until a few weeks ago, but now he can’t even do that. I think it’s the lump on his back, Doctor.”
Tim carefully turned the boy over to find a plum-sized swelling along the left edge of his spine at waist level. He touched it lightly, and Jonathan whimpered. “How long has he had this?” Tim asked.
“I didn’t notice it till a year ago, sir. It was tiny then, but it’s grown since. In the last month or so it’s gone from about the size of a grape to this big.”
Tim hesitated. He needed to do some research and then give Jonathan a more thorough examination before he could accurately diagnose and treat the boy’s condition. He did have several possibilities in mind, none of them good, but there was no sense alarming Ginny prematurely. After she had swathed her child in the bundle of cloth, Tim ushered them back into the waiting room, where he studied his appointment book.
“Can you come back at noon on Saturday? I’m sorry to make you wait that long, but I have some things to check, and it will take time.” Ginny nodded. “I’ll see then what I can do,” Tim said.
“Oh, Doctor, thank you so much,” Ginny blurted, grateful for any help regardless of when it might come. She shifted Jonathan to her left arm, and thrust her right hand into the pocket of her frayed and patched black dress. Removing a small felt sack, she emptied a pile of copper coins onto the clerk’s desk. Most were farthings and halfpennies, with an occasional large penny interspersed among them.
“I know this isn’t enough even for today, sir,” she apologized. “But I’ll get more, I promise. I’m working hard, you see, sir. Every day I go door-to-door and get work cleaning house and doing laundry, and save all I can.”
With his right hand, Tim swept the coins across the desktop into his cupped left palm and returned them to Ginny. He was touched by her attempt to pay him, knowing that she must have gone without food many times to accumulate this small amount of money. Her devotion to her son and effort to demonstrate her independence impressed him.
“There isn’t any fee, Miss Whitson. I’ll be happy to do whatever I can for Jonathan at no charge.”
“But I can’t accept charity, Doctor,” the surprised woman answered. “It wouldn’t be right, taking your time away from your paying patients.”
“We all need charity in one form or another at some time in our lives,” Tim said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for a great act of charity long ago, and as for taking time away from my paying patients, that may be more of a benefit than a problem. Come along, now, and I’ll give you and Jonathan a ride home.”
Tim locked the office door and escorted Ginny and Jonathan to his coach as tears trickled down her face, picking up dirt from the smudge on her cheek and tracking it down to her chin. Jonathan began to cry soon after the coach got under way, and Ginny comforted him with a lullaby, one that Tim remembered his own mother singing to him. When the child finally fell asleep, both remained silent, afraid to wake him. Once they reached the narrow streets packed with sailors, beggars, drunks, and an assortment of London’s other poor wretches, Ginny asked to be let out. Tim knocked twice on the roof, and Henry reined in the horses.
As she was about to step out of the carriage, something she had said earlier occurred to Tim. “One moment, Miss Whitson. You mentioned that someone directed you to my office. Do you know who he was?”
“No, Doctor,” she replied, “and he didn’t say. He was an old gentleman, thin, with a long nose and white hair. Neatly dressed, but his clothes weren’t fancy, if you know what I mean, sir.”
Tim bade her good night and watched as she walked down the sidewalk, past gin mills and dilapidated rooming houses. She soon turned into the recessed doorway of a darkened pawnshop and settled herself on the stone pavement. Tim briefly thought of going back to find out if she even had a home, or if she was going to spend the night in the doorway. Fatigue slowed his thoughts, however, and by the time the idea took root, the carriage was a block away and gathering speed.
Tim lay back against the soft, leather-covered seat cushions, pondering which of his Harley Street neighbors had directed her to his office. Most of them would have ignored such a woman, or ordered her back to the slums. Her description, though, didn’t fit any of them. He shook his head, trying to remove the cobwebs from his tired mind. It must have been someone else, someone he just couldn’t recall in his fuddled state. No sense wrestling with the question, he concluded.
During the long drive across town to his home in the western outskirts of London, Tim tried to relax. It had been another in a seemingly endless string of days filled with consultations and surgeries. Tim had arrived at his office at five-thirty that morning, half an hour earlier than usual, to prepare for a seven
o’clock operation on the Duchess of Wilbersham. She had been complaining for weeks about pain in her left shoulder, which she attributed to a strain that refused to heal. Since she never lifted anything heavier than a deck of cards at her daily whist game, Tim doubted the explanation, and several examinations showed no sign of any real injury. The duchess had a reputation as a hypochondriac who sought treatment for her phantom ailments from the best doctors in London, then bragged about
how she managed to maintain her health by not stinting on the cost of good medical care. To placate the pompous woman, Tim had finally caved in to her demand that he operate to repair the tendons and ligaments she insisted had been damaged. Because the surgery was minor and the duchess, with good reason, abhorred hospitals, Tim performed the operation in his office, which was equipped for such tasks. A small incision and internal examination verified his suspicion that the duchess’s shoulder was perfectly sound. When she awoke, with more pain from the surgery than she had ever experienced from her imaginary injury, along with sutures and an application of carbolic acid to prevent infection, she swore that the shoulder had not felt so well in ten years. Tim wondered if she would be so pleased when the effects of the morphine wore off.
“Just give the doctor that bag of coins I asked you to bring,” the duchess had ordered her maidservant. “I won’t insult you, Dr. Cratchit, by asking your fee, but I’m sure there’s more than enough here to cover it, and worth every farthing, too.”
When Tim’s clerk opened the leather pouch, he found it contained one hundred gold guineas. Tim could not help contrasting the way his wealthy patients tossed gold coins about with Ginny Whitson’s offer of her pathetic little hoard of coppers. The thought stirred memories of his own childhood, when pennies were so scarce that he and his brothers and sisters sometimes had to roam through frigid alleys to scavenge wood scraps to keep a fire burning on winter nights. It was on one such night when he lay awake, shivering on his thin straw mattress, that he overheard the conversation that changed his life.
“I’m to get a raise in salary,” his father murmured excitedly, trying not to wake the children.
“I don’t believe it,” Mrs. Cratchit declared. “That old miser would die before he parted with an extra farthing.”
“It’s true, dear,” Bob Cratchit insisted. “I’ve never seen Mr. Scrooge like that. We sat for an hour this afternoon, talking. He asked a lot of questions about our family, Tim in particular.”
“I’m surprised that he even knew you had a family, Bob.”
“I was, too, dear, but he seemed to know a good bit about us. Why, from a few things he said about hoping we had a good Christmas dinner, I think he’s the one who sent the turkey yesterday. Who else could have done it?”
“Well, I hope you’re right, Bob. I’ll not believe any of it until I see the proof.”
Tim smiled at the recollection of his mother’s skepticism. She had always been the realist in the family, Bob the optimist. Tim had shared his mother’s doubts. She and the children had despised Ebenezer Scrooge, blaming his greed for the family’s struggles. But with his stomach filled to bursting with turkey
left over from Christmas dinner, Tim dared to hope that his father was right, and that old Scrooge might truly have undergone a change of heart. After all, it was Christmas, a time when good things were supposed to happen.
The sudden stop as the carriage arrived at his front door shook Tim from his reverie. He was out the door before Henry could dismount from the driver’s seat and open it for him, a habit that Tim had observed left his coachman more amused than chagrined.
“That’s all right, Henry,” he said, waving toward the carriage house. “You and the horses get inside and warm up.”
Entering the large, well-lit foyer, Tim was greeted by his maid. Bridget Riordan was a pretty Irish girl, with long, flaming red hair pinned up under her white cap, numberless freckles on her cheeks and small nose, and green eyes that always seemed to sparkle with happiness. She took Tim’s top hat, coat, and
scarf. “Dinner will be ready in a half hour, Doctor,” she announced, “so you can rest a bit if you’d like.”
“Thank you, Bridget,” Tim replied, watching her walk gracefully toward the kitchen. He loosened his cravat as he climbed the stairs, thought briefly of skipping the meal and going directly to bed, and decided that he could not afford the luxury since he had a long evening of work ahead of him.
As usual, Tim dined alone. At the time he had purchased the large house, Tim had expected that he would one day need the space for the family he hoped to have. However, the demands of his practice and the memory of his one previous and unsuccessful attempt at courtship kept him from actively pursuing any romantic interests. Now he sometimes wondered whether he would spend the rest of his life a bachelor, without the happiness he had enjoyed as a child in the crowded and bustling Cratchit home.
Solitary meals in the cavernous dining room always seemed to dim Tim’s pleasure despite the hot, tasty food that Bridget prepared. When he had hired them after buying the house, he had often insisted that she, Henry, and William, the gardener, join him in the dining room. But the trio had been servants
since their childhood, and their previous masters, who had not shared Tim’s lack of concern with class distinctions, had impressed upon them the idea that it was improper for servants to associate with their master outside the scope of their duties. The dinner conversations had been stilted, with Tim trying to
make conversation and Bridget, Henry, and William replying in monosyllables punctuated by “sir.” Tim had quickly given up the experiment, yet he still could not help feeling a pang of sadness, mixed with a bit of jealousy, every time the sound of their friendly conversation and laughter in the serving room rose
high enough for him to hear. Still, he admitted that all three servants had warmed to him over the past two years, and had grown more willing to engage him in informal conversation. Perhaps one day they could dine together without the awkwardness of his previous attempts, he thought.
Shortly after nine o’clock, Tim retired to his upstairs study. There each night he reviewed the next day’s cases, looked up information in his medical books that he might need, and, if time permitted, read the most recent scientific journals to keep up to date on the latest advances in medicine and surgery. At
one time he had contributed his share of new knowledge to the medical profession, but for the last several years he just could not find the time to do so. He really didn’t have the opportunity, anyway. How could he devise innovative treatments, he asked himself, when most of the patients he saw, like the duchess, had nothing seriously wrong with them to begin with?
Having finished his preparation for the next day’s work, Tim drew out his pocket watch. Not quite half past ten. He reached across the wide mahogany desk for the latest issue of the Lancet, which had lain unread for more than a week. Tim pushed it aside. It would have to wait until he had researched Jonathan’s condition. Tim walked over to the bookcase, scanned several volumes, removed a reference book, and returned to his chair. The coal fire that Bridget had stoked was still burning strongly; he would see if he could find confirmation of his suspicions regarding the boy’s problem, or alternative, less dire diagnoses, before retiring. Balancing his chair upon its two rear legs, he put his feet on the desk and opened the volume.
Tim did not know how long he had been reading. It seemed he had gone over the same paragraph a dozen times without registering the information in his mind when he felt how cold the study had become. He glanced toward the fireplace, where a single small log emitted a parsimonious warmth. The room seemed dark—looking over his shoulder at the gas lamp, he was surprised to see only a candle in a tin wall sconce, flickering in a chill breeze that came through a cracked windowpane. Strange, Tim thought, he was certain Bridget had closed the curtains. And when had the window broken?
His eyes better adjusted to the gloom, Tim turned back toward the fireplace. His surprise turned to shock when he looked down at his legs and saw that the new black trousers he had been wearing were now coarse brown cloth through which he could see the outline of his legs, withered and weak. The
elegant marble of the fireplace had been replaced by cracked, ancient bricks. Leaning against them was a crutch. His childhood crutch.
Tim stared at the hearth, baffled, for how long he did not know. Then he started to get up, reaching for the crutch, only to find that his legs were so weak he could not stand. He gazed at his extended right hand. It was that of a child. He leaned back in his chair, rubbed his eyes, and when he looked around again, he was back in his own comfortable study. The gas lamp burned brightly, the fire still blazed in its marble enclave. There was no crutch to be seen. He flexed his legs. They were strong. He shuddered, perplexed at what had occurred. Although he was quite sure that he had not fallen asleep, he reassured himself that it must have been a dream. Not surprising, considering his thoughts about Jonathan, and the unavoidable realization that the boy’s plight reminded him so much of his own childhood illness. Tim stood, uneasy, and dropped the reference book on the desk before heading to bed.
Standing over the washbasin, he poured water from a pitcher into the ceramic bowl. He wet a washcloth and rubbed his face. Even in the light of the single gas lamp, he could see the creases beginning to form on his forehead, the dark circles under his blue eyes. A few strands of gray were sprinkled through his blond hair. He thought he looked at least a decade older than his thirty-two years. Combined with his short stature and thinness, Tim reflected that in a few years he would look like a wizened old man.
Too much work, that was the cause, he thought. Unpleasant work. And now he also had to do something about Jonathan Whitson, who had what was likely a malignant tumor. A boy not yet four, probably sentenced to death by nature before his life had a chance to begin. Five years ago, Dr. Timothy Cratchit would have tackled the child’s case enthusiastically and with optimism. Now he was reduced to performing fake surgeries to placate hypochondriacs.
Ginny Whitson had met him years earlier, and believed in his abilities. He only wished that he shared her confidence.
Jim Piecuch is an associate professor of history, and has published several works of nonfiction. Tim Cratchit’s Christmas Carol is his first novel.
The Perfect Gift
November 17, 2014
’Tis the night before Christmas…and businessman and single father Jason is scrambling to find the dollhouse of the season for his seven-year-old daughter Emily. But when he finally strikes gold at an obscure toy store, he’s met with resistance—literally, as a beautiful woman named Leah is grabbing onto the dollhouse box from the other side of the aisle, determined to get the same Christmas present for her own daughter. Desperate not to let the other win, Jason and Leah forge a pact: stay together until they find the same dollhouse at a different toy store. It sounds simple, but ten stores and many hours later, they still come up empty. They might not be finding another dollhouse, but they sure are finding a lot to talk about and, as their mutual attraction grows, the unlikely pair finds the greatest holiday gift of all—love.
Ten minutes. Jason had ten minutes to make the twenty-minute trip across town. He’d never be on time for his meeting. He stared at his watch as if it would tell him something different this time. Acid rolled in his stomach. Well, they’d just have to wait. Christmas Eve was tomorrow and he had to take care of getting Emily’s present. Truthfully, he should have gotten it already, but between working, looking after the house, and taking care of Emily, he had little time left over for anything else.
The only thing Emily had asked for this year was the Little Family Dollhouse. She’d get other gifts, too, of course, but he had to be sure to have that one. A coworker he’d spoken to before he left the office had told him how popular the house was with girls Emily’s age. Every little girl she knew either had one or had put it at the top of her list for Santa. Apparently now it was almost impossible to find. She’d suggested this small, out-of-the-way toy store that specialized in hard-to-find items. So here he was, sitting in a traffic jam, hoping it wasn’t too late to get what he needed. Impatience threatened to
strangle him. He glanced again at the clock on the dashboard.
Emily was mature for seven, so he knew she’d accept that he couldn’t find the dollhouse. Still, he didn’t want her to be disappointed. Since Karen’s death, he’d raised her on his own, and so far it had proved to be the most challenging, most rewarding thing he’d ever done, and he desperately wanted to do it right.
The traffic light turned red, and Jason ground his back molars. Not one car had moved while the light was green. Not. One. Car. City traffic was the last thing he needed right now. He clutched the steering wheel tightly and dropped his head onto his clenched fists. This was ridiculous. Who would schedule a lunchtime meeting all the way across town on the day before Christmas Eve? His boss, that’s who. How could he possibly get all of this done? He rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands. Didn’t these people need to be at work or something? The motorist behind him hit the horn—again—and Jason couldn’t help but wonder what the man was beeping at. There was nowhere to go. No doubt he was just voicing his frustration. While Jason could certainly feel his pain, the constant honking was grating on his nerves.
Spotting a gap in the traffic, he darted to the right as soon as the light changed. He whipped around the next corner and slipped into a parking spot only two blocks from the toy store. Figuring he was lucky to get this close, he locked the car and jogged the two blocks. The freezing-cold drizzle not only soaked him but also coated the sidewalk with a thin sheet of ice. Since he was dressed for work in his suit and hard-soled dress shoes, the going wasn’t easy. Slipping when he turned to enter the store, he went down hard. His feet slid out from under him and he hit the wet sidewalk, scraping his chin on the step, tearing a hole in the knee of his pants, and soaking himself in the process.
Could this day get any worse? Even as the thought crossed his mind, things indeed got worse. As he pushed himself up, he caught a glimpse through the front door of the toy store. Although a few customers still browsed inside, the clerk was already putting the key into the lock. Oh, no! She can’t. Clutching the handrail tightly, he hurried up the two front steps to the door, grabbing hold of it before she could turn the key.
“I’m sorry, sir. We’re closing early today. I’m flying down to Florida to visit family for the holidays.”
Soaking wet, shivering in the cold, he could certainly appreciate her hurry to head south, but he had to get into that store. “Please. I just need one thing. It’s really important. I promise I’ll only be a minute.”
Apparently, the woman could tell he was having a rough day, because she gave him a sympathetic look as she held the door open and gestured for him to enter.
“Thank you so much.”
He looked around, quickly locating the girls’ section and headed straight for the aisle that held the dollhouses. The store was small but crowded with merchandise, and it took him several trips up and
down the aisle to realize the dollhouse he needed wasn’t there. Great. Now what would he do? He hated disappointing Emily. Shoving his fingers through his hair in frustration, he turned to leave.
Unbelievable. He took a deep breath to ease the disappointment pressing like a weight against his chest. Just when he thought this day couldn’t get any worse, he spotted it. The Little Family Dollhouse. It sat on the end of the aisle, pushed against the back of the shelf, and there was only one left. Wary of his slippery shoes on the wet floor, he moved cautiously but quickly toward the shelf. Breathing a sigh of
relief, he grabbed the box, turned to head for the register, and…met with resistance. Snapping back around, he pulled again. Once more the box was yanked away from him. He held tight to the dollhouse
as he peered around the corner of the aisle at the other set of fingers holding onto his prize. A small, delicate hand had managed an incredibly tight grip on the box. His gaze slid up the arm and into
the biggest, bluest, most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen. The breath caught in his throat.
LEAH GRIPPED THE dollhouse as tightly as she could and stared into eyes that had to be made from melted chocolate. She’d never seen such amazing eyes, and her gaze held his.
“I’m sorry. I need to get this dollhouse.” He still hadn’t taken his eyes from hers.
She smiled her best smile. “I’m sorry, too, but I had it first.”
“Look,” he started, smiling back at her, the expression filling his eyes with even more warmth, and Leah’s heart melted a little bit. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to have this dollhouse.”
His eyes might have melted her heart, but there was no way she was letting go of this box. Motherhood prevailed. She’d called all over the city looking for this dollhouse, and now that she’d found it, nothing could make her part with it, not even a pair of eyes she could easily lose herself in.
“This is the only thing my daughter asked for this year. I must have it.” Her grin faltered for just a second before she plastered it firmly back in place. Then she pulled her gaze away from his eyes, effectively removing any temptation she might have felt to release her hold on the box.
Having been so enthralled by his eyes, she’d somehow missed taking in the rest of him, and the sight that greeted her now left her momentarily speechless. He was a mess. His gray pin-striped business suit was soaking wet, dirty, and torn. Wet hair stuck up in thick, dark clumps along one side of his head. A large scrape marred his very sexy chin.
All right, don’t go there. Wow, he really was having a bad day.
He exhaled one of those annoyed male sighs she knew so well. “Look, let’s be reasonable here. I already had the box in my hand when you grabbed hold of it.”
“Actually, I had my hand on it first, and then you grabbed it.” Her smile wavered as she started to realize he might not release his hold.
“Okay, I’ll pay you the cost of the dollhouse if you’ll let me have this one.”
The dollhouse cost over a hundred dollars, and she had to admit the money would come in handy. Her job as a receptionist didn’t pay much. The only reason she hadn’t looked for the gift sooner was that
she’d had to wait for her final paycheck before Christmas. Although she was tempted to accept his offer, she still held tight.
Allison hadn’t asked for anything else for Christmas. Leah had to have the dollhouse for her.
“I’m sorry. Even though your offer is very generous”—you jerk—“I’m afraid I can’t accept. My daughter is only seven, and this is the only thing she asked for this year. I have to have it for her. I’ve already been all over the city looking for it. I’m sure you can understand.”
She mentally kicked herself even as the words left her mouth. Maybe he hadn’t realized how impossible these things were to find. If Mr. Chocolate Eyes thought he’d be able to find another one, she might have a better chance of getting him to release his hold on the box. He forked his free hand through his hair. Good grief. No wonder it was so messy.
“Okay, let’s be reasonable.” He took another long breath, his wet clothes clinging to broad shoulders. “Only one of us can have the dollhouse. I understand your position. I have a seven-year-old as well. This dollhouse is the only thing she put on her list for Santa this year. She’d be so disappointed if it wasn’t under the tree. Please, is there any way I can talk you into letting me have it?”
“We’re obviously both in the same position. As adults, surely we can resolve this somehow.” She couldn’t help but wonder what he’d do if she just yanked the box out of his hand and ran. The only
problem being she’d have to stop and pay for it. She couldn’t just run out of the store. Or could she? She glanced toward the front door and chewed on her bottom lip. She could always come back in later,
after he’d gone, and pay for it. Of course, if the owner called the police and they caught her before she could come back, she’d spend Christmas in jail.
Definitely not an option. Allison didn’t have anyone but her mother and had never known her father. He’d taken off the day he found out Leah was pregnant. Right now Allison was with Leah’s parents in Ohio. She’d be home tomorrow, though, and Leah had to be at the airport to pick her up, not sitting in a jail cell for petty theft. No, she couldn’t run.
He was still staring at her, apparently thinking her silence meant she was contemplating his offer. “All right, maybe we could—”
“Excuse me.” The sales clerk didn’t appear to be the least bit amused. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, her foot tapping and a scowl on her face. “Sir, I let you in because you told me you just needed one thing. You said you’d only be a minute. I have to lock up now or I’m going to miss my flight.”
“We seem to have a misunderstanding here.”
At least he had the good grace to blush when he explained the situation.
“I don’t really care who gets the dollhouse. In one minute I’m locking that door and I won’t sell it to wither of you.” She turned her back on them and walked away, effectively ending any argument either of them could come up with.
When the Christmas music stopped and the lights flipped off a minute later, Leah panicked. “Come on. I really need to have this. Neither of us is going to get it if you don’t let go. Now.” Desperation nearly choked her. “Maybe we can find another one somewhere else, but we’re definitely not going to find rwo. Let me have this one and I’ll help you find another one.”
He appeared to be as surprised as she was by the offer, but he still didn’t let go.
“I’m leaving.” The clerk’s voice rang out, sounding completely annoyed.
“No,” they cried in unison.
“I’ll tell you what.” The man quickly glanced at the clerk and then back at her. “We’ll split the cost of this one and go together to look for another one. Then we’ll split the cost of that one, and we’ll each end up with a dollhouse.”
The rattle of keys made Leah’s decision. “Fine. You’re on.”
Dani-Lyn Alexander is a native New Yorker. She was born in Rome, New York, then moved to Rosedale, and finally to Long Island. She still lives on eastern Long Island with her husband and three children. Please visit http://www.danilynalexander.com/.
The Christmas Train
November 17, 2014
Anna Spano is on the train to meet her father while she befriends Eva Stephens, an older woman who occasionally thinks she’s traveling to her home village in pre–World War II for the holidays. Recognizing Miss Eva’s disorientation as the same dementia her late grandmother experienced, Anna isn’t sure who is actually taking care of whom on the journey. At the far end of the journey, Tom Thurston is anxious about what to expect when his daughter arrives. So he’s doubly shocked when a teary old woman embraces him, convinced that he is her long-lost brother. At Anna’s insistence, he reluctantly agrees to bring the woman home with them and try to locate her family. And as Anna clings loyally to her new friend, and Tom struggles to be who Miss Eva needs him to be, both father and daughter begin to understand one another. And through Miss Eva, they learn the true meaning of family, and of love.
Tom Thurston stared at his phone in shock, then dropped it on the kitchen counter as if it had burned his hand. Like a ghost from the past, Carrie calls him and tells him she’s sending Anna to live with him? She’d said, “I’ve raised her for the first ten years. It’s your turn now.” Into his stunned silence she’d added, “I’ll let you know when she’s arriving.” He sank onto a bar stool and stared blankly. What
was he supposed to do with a ten-year-old girl? Groaning, he raked a hand through his hair. He
should have known this day would come—that his one big mistake would eventually come back to haunt him. He’d met Carrie Spano in his senior year at the University of Texas. A freshman, she’d been a beauty. Faced with her dark, flashing eyes, her killer body, and her devil-may-care approach to life, it had been easy to overlook her youth. By November they’d been an item. But by April, with graduation and a new job on his horizon, she’d started pushing for them to get married. Married? At twenty-two?
Then she’d dropped the bomb: she was pregnant.
It was painful to remember his panic and her stunned response. Backed against a wall, he’d blurted out that he was too young to get married; they both were. But if she wanted, he would help her get an abortion.
Carrie, always fun-loving but often intense, had gone ballistic, screaming and ranting that he was a son of a bitch and every other foul name she could think of. And she’d been right. He knew that now, but at the time he’d thanked his lucky stars to be rid of her. In a fit of rage she’d vowed to keep the baby and make him sorry that he’d ever messed with her.
That was the last time he’d seen her. But as he’d started his professional life as an engineer here in Iowa, the shadow of Carrie had hung over him. Carrie and her baby. His baby. He’d expected to hear from her once the baby was born, but when there was no word he got anxious. Did she have the baby or not? Did she keep it or put it up for adoption?
He’s finally researched the births in Carrie’s hometown and discovered that Caroline Spano—no
father listed—had given birth to Anna Rose Spano on October 2, 1991.
He had a daughter.
And now that daughter was ten years old, and coming here to live with him.
“Damn it!” How was he supposed to fit her into his life? But even more difficult would be explaining her to his parents and sister. What would they think of him, their golden boy, who, as far as they knew, had never screwed up. Even worse, how could he justify keeping such a huge secret from them?
He braced his elbows on the counter. He supposed they would forgive him eventually. And they would
accept Anna, he knew that. His mother was eager for a grandchild and made no bones about it, especially to his recently married sister.
But what about Joelle? Would she be able to forgive him? Or would she dump him and his surprise daughter like a load of bricks?
Muffling a curse, he dropped his head into his hands. This could not be happening. Not this fast, with no
warning whatsoever. Surely he and Carrie could come to some sort of compromise. What if he offered her money to keep the child? After all, she’d cashed the check he’d sent her right after he found out the baby was born. Although she hadn’t acknowledged them, she’d cashed all the checks he’d sent that first year.
Then one of the envelopes came back marked unable to deliver. He’d done a cursory search for her with no success, and decided that if she’d moved and couldn’t be bothered to contact him, then so be it. And if he’d ever felt guilty on October 2 every year, he’d told himself that he’d done all he could do.
Now, though, he was in a quandary. He could no longer ignore the situation.
He stared at his phone. Taking a deep breath, he reached for it and pressed *69. “Pick up, Carrie. Pick up
the damn phone,” he muttered as it rang and rang. He wasn’t ready to be a father. A kid would ruin everything. He would not let Carrie wreck his life without even giving him a chance to make some counteroffer. But when he finally hung up after twenty rings, he knew he was wrong. Carrie could wreck his life. She already had.
Anna rolled up her favorite nightgown, three pairs of socks and underpants, and three changes of
clothes—her favorites, just in case her mother didn’t get around to sending the rest of her clothes and other things she’d packed into two big cardboard boxes. Even with the boxes full, there were so many things she loved that she had to leave behind. Her teddy-bear collection. Her shelf of Goosebumps books. Her school papers, and the art projects that Nana Rose had posted on the refrigerator. And then there was her bike, and all her Barbie stuff.
Her mother said it cost too much to send so much junk all the way to Iowa. If her father wanted to drive
back and get it, fine with her.
Anna swallowed hard and began to shove the nightgown into her backpack. If her father did want her
and all her stuff, he would’ve said so a long time ago. All the things her grandmother had scrimped and saved to buy her were as good as gone.
Except for the Christmas present.
Wiping away her tears, Anna knelt down and pulled the box out from under her bed. She’d found it in Nana Rose’s closet when her mother told her to pick out a dress for Nana Rose to be buried in. Even though it had only been October, the box had been wrapped in pretty Christmas paper with a wide red ribbon and a gift tag with Anna written on it in Nana Rose’s neat, familiar handwriting.
Setting the gift on her bed, she studied it and the rest of the clothes that had to fit in her backpack.
When she first found it, she’d wanted so bad to open it. Even now, just looking at it, knowing Nana Rose had wrapped it up so nice for her, made her want to open it. But she had to wait. This was going to be the worst Christmas of her life, but at least she had this present. When she opened it on Christmas morning, it would be almost like Nana Rose was there with her. Almost. Frowning, she emptied her backpack, wedged the box safely on the bottom, then repacked her clothes on top of it.
She wasn’t sure where she would be on Christmas Day, but at least she could look forward to opening this one last gift from Nana Rose.
The train depot was festooned for Christmas.
Garlands looped above the ticket counter. A huge wreath hung over the wide arched entrance to the
station’s platforms, and a pair of lighted trees, flocked white and laden with shiny red ornaments, flanked the information and security booth.
Eva Stephens clutched the handle of her bag. It held no presents, but she hoped her surprising visit after so long an absence would prove present enough for her family. Her heart fluttered in her chest, an unwelcome symptom according to her doctor. But she preferred to think of it as butterfly wings beating eagerly for release. She was going home! After more years than she could remember, she was going home for Christmas.
She coughed three times, like the nurse had taught her, and felt the flutter subside. Then shifting her
carpetbag from her right hand to her left, she set out for the ticket counter. How long since she’d been on a train? She couldn’t recall. But some things never changed: the busy excitement of so many people rushing everywhere; the low rumble of the massive engines that permeated even inside the station building. And through the glass doors, the view of people queuing up to board.
Unfortunately people didn’t seem to dress as nicely as they used to. She tried not to stare at a man in worn tennis shoes and a stained sweatshirt. And behind her in line a woman dressed in painted-on jeans, knee-high stiletto boots, and a sweater meant to emphasize her generous breasts held the hand of a little girl, all the while reeking of cigarette smoke.
Eva wrinkled her nose. I hope they still have separate smoking cars.
The child at least was properly dressed in corduroy slacks, some sort of puffy blue jacket, and a matching
blue and white muffler and stocking cap. She was a pretty little thing with straight blond bangs hanging over striking blue eyes. She didn’t look very happy, though.
“Where to? Ma’am? Where to?”
“Oh.” Eva looked up with a start. “Am I next?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The ticket seller raised his brows, then returned his attention to his computer screen. “Where to?”
“Let’s see.” She pulled out the slip of paper with the town’s name on it. Not that she needed it to remember the name of her own hometown. Still, every now and again she got these annoying little lapses of memory. Better to be safe than sorry.
“Yes, yes. I want a ticket to Ennis. If you please.”
“Ennis.” He stared at his screen, a faint frown on his face. Then he smiled. “Here it is. Ennis, Iowa. Right?”
Eva faltered. Ennis was in Germany, not Iowa. She looked around her, at a loss suddenly for where she was.
“Ennis,” she repeated, tightening her grip on the handle of her carpetbag. “I want to go to Ennis.”
“Okay, okay,” the man said. “Ennis it is. “Will that be a round trip?”
“No.” Eva smiled at him, restored by overwhelming joy at the thought of her hometown. “No,” she repeated, beaming pure happiness at the ticket seller. “I only need a one-way ticket.”
“One way it is.” He glanced up at her. “Looks like you’re pretty happy to be going.”
“Ach, so I am.”
“That’ll be one hundred forty-eight dollars. Cash or credit?”
Eva lifted her chin. “I deal only in the cash, young man. Buying on credit gets a person into trouble.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he agreed, taking the eight twentydollar bills she slid into the tray beneath the glass
partition. “But, ma’am,” he added, leaning nearer and lowering his voice. “Don’t say too much about carrying only cash, okay? There’s people who’d love to fleece a nice lady like you. You know what I mean?”
Eva nodded, taking the change he slid back to her and folding it into her purse. “I will be very careful.”
She patted her purse and as added precaution hooked the long strap over her head and shoulder. “But I thank you for your concern.”
“You’re boarding at three fifteen on platform seven. Merry Christmas and have a good trip.”
“Thank you, and a Merry Christmas to you, too.”
As Eva turned away she nearly collided with the cigarette-scented woman in the revealing sweater. “Oh,
my. Excuse me.”
“No problem,” the woman muttered, giving her a hard stare.
Eva nodded and headed toward the gates to the loading platform. It was too cold to wait outside, so she
found a seat near the arched doors. Not long now. In less than an hour she would be on her way home at last. Smiling, she settled her purse and her carpetbag on her lap and folded her hands over them. This would be the happiest Christmas ever.
Rexanne Becnel is the USA TODAY bestselling author of more than twenty books, including Thief of My Heart, A Dove at Midnight, and Dangerous to Love. She lives in New Orleans.