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Holly & Humbug


To get you into the spirit of the season, here are the first three chapters of my holiday romance Holly and the Humbug. If you love holiday romance flicks on Hallmark, you will adore this story.


HOLLY AND THE HUMBUG


Prologue

November, 15 years ago, Flint, MI.

The man in the overalls picked up the boxes, as instructed. He knew the situation. It was no surprise that the lady of the house wasn’t at home. Looked like a nice family. It was too bad, it really was. He left the check, safe in its sealed envelope, stuck through the crack in the door, then carried the final armload to the truck. Just as he shoved the boxes into the back with the others, a hat fell out. It rolled past his feet in a most unusual way. He went after it, but it kept rolling, and then just as he bent to grab it, a big gust of wind came out of nowhere, and swept it up, way, way up. It was carried away, over a house’s roof and out of sight.


The man in the overalls rolled his eyes. Hell, an old worn-out hat like that wouldn’t have brought much anyway. He returned to the truck, pulled the door closed, and secured the latch. Then he drove back to the secondhand shop with the dead man’s clothes.



Chapter 1


November, 15 years ago, Flint, Michigan


“You sold it? All of it?”


Matthew stared up at his mother in blatant disbelief. Wasn’t it bad enough that Dad had to die the day before Thanksgiving? That they had to bury him the day after? That their big meal on the day in between had consisted of deli meat, rolls, and about six casseroles brought over by neighbors and relatives?


She had to go and sell his stuff, too?


His mother blinked down at him. She seemed kind of in a daze, not all there, mostly numb. It seemed to him she could hear just fine, but what she heard wasn’t making its way to her brain.


“I had to, Matt. The money situation isn’t...it isn’t good.”


Yeah, he’d picked up on that much. He was twelve, not two. And he resented that his mother didn’t seem to think he could understand things. He did understand. He heard and saw and understood. Dad had died broke. He’d racked up debts that Matt’s mom hadn’t even known about. There was no money. There were bills due. And the funeral had cost a bundle. He got all that.


“I know the money situation isn’t good, Mom. And I could see selling the guns, the tools, the computer. But geeze, Mom, his clothes!”


“It was either sell them or give them away. And we need every penny right now. Christmas is coming.”


And that was Mom. She wasn’t worried about bills or taxes or losing the house or the car or even paying for the funeral. She was worried because Christmas was coming.


“We don’t need Christmas this year,” he told her. “We’re not gonna feel like celebrating anyway.”


“Oh, you’re so wrong, Matt. We need Christmas this year more than ever.”


He rolled his eyes, but thought about his kid sister, Cindy. She was only six, and yeah, she probably did need Christmas. But he didn’t.


“There must be something you want for Christmas, Matt,” his mother pressed on. “One gift. One special gift that could make this time a little bit easier for you. There is something, isn’t there? Tell me.”


He pursed his lips, cleared his throat because he didn’t want her to hear his grief in his voice. He was fine. But...


“Yeah, there is something. Or was. Dad’s hat.”


“His hat?” She blinked, still blank, but a little less so. “That silly felt fedora he was always wearing?”


Matt nodded. “He used to joke about that hat being my inheritance. Anytime we were doing anything fun, he would be wearing it. Don’t you remember? It was like—I don’t know, it was like his trademark. He loved that stupid hat. Remember how he wrote his initials in it in permanent purple marker when we went on vacation, just in case it got lost?” He paused there, remembering the road trip, the theme park, the fun. And that hat, at the center of it all. “I want Dad’s hat, Mom. It’s a part of him.”


His mother’s dull, numb expression changed then. It changed right before his eyes. Her face crumpled, and a rush of tears flooded her eyes and splashed onto her cheeks, and then she lowered her head into her hands. “I’m sorry, baby. I...it went with all the other stuff. I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”


“Yeah, I figured.” He sighed, wanted to be furious, but he couldn’t stand to see her crying like that. Her shoulders were shaking.


“How am I going to do this?” she moaned. “I’m screwing everything up already and he’s only been gone a few days. How am I going to do this by myself?”


Matt reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s just a hat.”


“I’ll try to get it back,” she said. “It all went to a used clothing store, downtown. I can probably still find it.”


“Just don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”


“Yes, it does,” she cried. “Matt, I’m so sorry. I thought I could use the money to get you something nice for Christmas.”


If he had to pick the moment when he’d decided to hate Christmas forever, that would probably be the closest Matthew could come. That moment, right then. Matt hated Christmas. He hated the entire holiday season. It had taken his father away from him, and then it had doubled the blow by taking the only thing of his dad’s that he’d really wanted. And yeah, it was just a stupid old hat. But it was his dad’s stupid old hat.

He hated Christmas. And he vowed that day that he would always hate Christmas.


* * *


November, 15 years ago, Oswego, N.Y.

12-year-old Holly opened her eyes, and saw that she was in a place that was all white. Sunbeams spilled through the window like liquid gold, and angels stood all around her.

But they were not angels. There had been angels, only moments ago. That much, she knew. As she blinked her vision clear, the blurry shapes she’d mistaken as wings faded, and the men and women in white took on ordinary forms. The room really had been filled with angels and she had a feeling it still was. She only stopped being able to see them when she woke fully.


A nurse was writing on a chart. Someone warm was holding her hand, and Holly looked up to see her Aunt Sheila sitting there in a chair beside her hospital bed. She looked like she’d been there awhile. Her hair was messy and her eyes, red and puffy. She was staring down at Holly’s hand as if she wasn’t really seeing it.


Holly looked all around the room, and realized that what she’d been dreaming hadn’t been a dream at all. “Aunt Sheila?” she said, surprised that her words came out in a hoarse croak.

The nurses in the room stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. Aunt Sheila’s head came up, eyes met hers, and then filled.


“Baby,” she said. “You’re awake.” She shot a look at the nearest nurse, who hurried out of the room muttering that she would get the doctor.


But Holly clutched her aunt’s hand harder, and held her eyes firm this time. “Mom and Dad...and Noelle? They’re dead, aren’t they?”


Sheila didn’t say anything. Instead she gathered Holly into her arms, and held her hard. She held her tight. Holly tried to be brave like her mom had asked her to, but she couldn’t stop herself from bursting into tears. And in a second Aunt Sheila was sobbing, too.


They held each other and cried for a long time. They cried until they just about couldn’t cry anymore. And then finally, Holly sat up in her bed, and wiped at her eyes. “You all thought I was going to die, too, right?” Holly said.


Aunt Sheila blinked her red eyes dry. “What makes you think that?”


“I think—I think I did, for a while. I was with Mom and Dad and little Noelle. They’re okay.” She met her Aunt Sheila’s eyes. "They really are, they’re okay. You don’t have to worry.” 


Sheila’s tears spilled over anew, and she pressed her palms to Holly’s cheeks, and kissed her forehead. And then she whispered, “Honey, do you remember what happened? There was a car accident. You were all in it. The doctors tried, honey, they tried their best.”


“I know,” Holly said. It seemed Aunt Sheila wasn't getting what Holly was trying to tell her, and it was important. “Mom wanted me to tell you that they’re okay. I saw them. I was with them for a little while. But Mom, she told me I had to come back. She said there were really important things for me to do. She said everything happens for a reason. And she said you needed me, Aunt Sheila. She said death isn’t real. And I know it’s true, because I was there—only it’s not really there, it’s here. She’s still here, she’s still with us.” She lifted her eyes, staring around the room, her lips pulling into a watery smile. “Can’t you feel her?”


Sheila gathered Holly into her arms and held her gently. Her tears were used up, but her grief remained.


"They’ll be okay as long as they know we are. I don’t know if I could have been if I hadn’t seen it all for myself. I crossed over with them. It felt like I was walking them home. And it was beautiful, Aunt Sheila. If we fall apart, it’s going to break their hearts, but we don’t have to fall apart, because they're great. They’re perfect, they really are.”


Sheila nodded. “You’re amazing, Holly. You know that?” She kissed her again. “So much like your mom.”


“She wants us to remember her at Christmas,” Holly said. “That was the one thing she made me promise to do for her. To always treat Christmas the way she did. She said she’d be there with me, every single year.”


Sniffling, Sheila murmured, “She adored Christmas.”


“She never missed a Midnight Mass,” Holly said. “Or a Christmas special on TV. Rudolph, Frosty, The Little Drummer Boy.”


“And then there were the decorations.” Sheila took a rumpled tissue from her pocket and blew her nose softly, shaking her head.


Holly nodded hard. “She shorted out the power last year when she added that full-sized sleigh and reindeer to the roof. Remember? Santa waved and the reins lit up and the bells jingled and the reindeer moved? But only for about a minute and a half. Then everything went black.”


“I remember how mad your dad pretended to be when he had to hire an electrician to put the holiday lights on their own separate breaker. He wasn’t really mad, though. He loved having the house everyone wanted to drive past every night from Thanksgiving to New Year's.” They both laughed softly, sadly, but warmly.


There wasn’t a nurse in the room whose eyes were dry. “Sheila, look,” Holly whispered. Sheila lifted her head and followed Holly’s gaze to the window. Snow was falling outside. "The first snow of the season,” Holly said. “Mom always said it has magic in it.”


“We’re going to be okay, Holly. You and me, I promise.”


Holly nodded. “We will be. And so will they.”


“They will. And we’re gonna have a Christmas to beat them all,” Sheila promised. “One to make your mom smile.”


“She’ll love that,” Holly said. “I love Christmas, because she did. That’s kind of what she left me, I think. I’ll always love Christmas, for Mom.”



Chapter Two


Present Day, Binghamton, N.Y.


Holly made her way from the kitchen to Table Six, balancing two breakfast platters, a carafe of coffee, a bottle of ketchup and a decanter of real maple syrup, all without missing a step or spilling a drop. She delivered the food piping hot and, as always, accompanied by a brilliant smile. “Anything else I can get you boys?”


Bub Tanner, as he was called, and that was the only name she knew, grinned at her and rubbed his unshaven graying stubble with one hand. “I like how she calls us boys,” he said.

“She’s just flattering your ego, Bub,” Tater said. And that was the only name she knew for him. “She knows we’re both older than dirt.”


“Speak for yourself, Tater.” Bub reached for the carafe, but Holly beat him to it, filled his cup, and then Tater’s, with the decaf they hadn’t asked for.


“Enjoy your breakfast.”


“Here, take this with you, hon, will you?”


Holly looked back to see Tater holding out his thoroughly read newspaper. She smiled and took it from him. 


“Happy to get that outta your way,” she said, and then she paused, because the paper was open to page three and folded in just such a way that one particular story was looking her right in the face.


“Oswego Welcomes Natives Home for Holidays,” the headline announced. The story was a feel-good piece about all the people traveling in from out of town for the season, how good it was for business.


But that wasn’t the way Holly saw it. Frowning, she carried the paper with her behind the counter and into the kitchen. “Aunt Sheila?”


Sheila turned her wheelchair around–she’d been parked right next to the short-order cook, probably lecturing him on his technique–and smiled at her. “What, babe?”


“Look what Tater just handed me.” She thrust the paper toward her, and Sheila looked at it, saw the story, lifted her brows.


“That’s the fourth time this morning, Aunt Sheila.”


Sheila nodded, tilted her head. “And how many signs did you have about your hometown yesterday?” she asked.


“Six.”


“Right. Including the billboard for the school play, To Oz We Go.”


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