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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.



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’ 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. 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.


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

“Oz We Go. Oswego. Come on, Aunt Sheila, it’s almost blatant.”

Sheila nodded. “You need to spend this Christmas at home.”

“I don’t know that I need to. And I don’t want to leave you, but I feel like something– I don’t know–wants me to.”

“Which is why I called the Realtor.”

“You did?” Then, "What Realtor?"

Sheila nodded, and wheeled across the kitchen, toward the office door, with a quick glance back at Will, the new short- order cook. He met her eyes and there was... something.

Holly lifted her brows. “Was that–?”

“Office, Holly,” Sheila said. She’d opened the door and held it, waiting. So Holly obediently went inside. 

“The old place, your family home, is empty,” Sheila told her. “It’s in rough shape, being that it’s been empty the past fifteen years, but it’s habitable. Barely. If you want to go up there for a few days over the holiday, I think you should. Maybe...maybe it’s time.”

“But you’d be alone for Christmas. And we always do Christmas together. For Mom, you know. And–”

“We can do it up separately just as well. And I won’t be alone." She said it with a meaningful glance through the still open office door, toward Will. He was whistling as he flipped flapjacks. He looked back, caught her eye and smiled at her in a certain way.

Holly blinked and shot her aunt a look.

“I have MS, Holly. I’m not dead.”

Holly smiled from ear to ear. Her aunt really did embrace life, in every possible way. She loved that about her. It reminded her of the way her mom had been. It was the way Holly tried to be, too. It must run in the female line.

Or maybe losing someone so important had made them all realize how precious and fragile a thing life was, so they cherished it a little bit more.

“I could take part of the decorations up with me,” Holly said, mulling it over as she thought it through. “It would be kind of cool to decorate the old house like Mom used to. Even if it is in rough shape.”

“I think she’d like that."

"Oh, but is there even heat or electricity?" Holly gnawed her lower lip, wondering if this was really even possible.

"The Realtor said she could have the power turned on, a fresh tank of LP gas hooked up, and the furnace running when you arrive. All we have to do is call and give her the go-ahead. And she'll leave the key in the mailbox.”

“You, really did talk to the Realtor, didn’t you?”

“I thought it could be my gift to you this year. I think you have to do this, Holly. You haven’t been back there since you lost them. And your eyes are lighting up just thinking about it,” Sheila said with a smile. “You’ve been taking care of me, taking care of everyone around here, ever since you came home with me from the hospital. It’s time to do something for yourself, even if it’s only for a few days. Give yourself what you really want, this Christmas. Okay?”

Holly heard the rumble of a motor and glanced up and through the window, just in time to see a bus go past. Plastered to its side was an ad for the State University of New York at Oswego. She smiled, shaking her head. “I don’t think the Universe is going to take no for an answer. My hometown seems to be calling me. Guess I’ve got no choice.”

* * *

Present Day, Detroit, MI.

“Yes, I do have to go now,” Matthew told his sister. “Yes, Cindy, I know it’s Christmas week. But this is business.”

She sounded heartbroken, but honest to God, if he had to sit through one more warm, cozy, family dinner at her house with her idyllic life and her doting husband and her chubby babies, he was going to swallow a stick of dynamite, chase it with a lighter and hope for the best.

She was whining, applying guilt, pleading with him, ending with, "You know how I feel about the holidays, Matt."

“And you know how I feel about the holidays, Cindy. I get it, Christmas is important to you, but ‘to you’ is the operative part of that sentence. To me, it’s torture." She sighed heavily, inhaled to try again, so he spoke first. "Besides, this place is a bargain. I can’t miss out, and if I buy it this week, when every other person in the market is taking the holidays off, I’ll have the kind of edge you never get in real estate.”

Combine that edge with the phony-baloney goodwill of the season, and the Realtor needing one more fat commission check before the end of the calendar year to cover her holiday overspending, like everyone else he knew, and he had it made.

People were idiots this time of year. He was smart enough to take advantage of that.

“Yes, Cindy, I’m flying. Right away? Well, yeah, seeing as how I’m calling you from the airport, I would say it’s pretty much imminent. Yep, I’m renting a car when I arrive in Syracuse and driving up from there. And yes, we’ll celebrate when I get back, I promise. There’s no reason in the world I shouldn’t be back in time for Christmas dinner. My flight leaves Christmas Eve, three p.m.” He almost grimaced at the thought, but tried to make his words sound sincere all the same. At least it would be the final holiday feast of the year, and he could skip his sister's week-before-Christmas seven-day pre-game show. Ice skating with the kids who couldn't stand up, going to the mall to see the big guy, caroling, school concerts and plays, last minute shopping, days of gift-wrapping. He shuddered at the thought. “Have a great week, hon." He certainly planned to. "They're calling my flight. I’ll call you in a day or two. Bye.”

He disconnected, cutting her off before she could dole out any more helpings of guilt and dragged his roller bag toward the concourse, where his flight had just begun boarding.

As he got into his seat, he leaned back, closed his eyes, and told himself he really would do his best to get back to Cindy’s in time for Christmas. Cindy needed Christmas.

And that thought brought to mind the other. The one from long ago, his first Christmas without his dad, and his mom’s tearful explanation about how she’d gone to the secondhand clothing store and tried to find the hat, but that it was already gone. And the proprietor not only didn’t remember who had bought it, he didn’t even remember ever having seen it.

The hat was beyond recovering.

Just like his dad. Just like his childhood after that. Just like everything eventually was. Gone.

Which just validated his belief that getting too attached to anything was a bad idea. Things were fleeting. There and gone again. So were people. There was no point getting too used to anything. Ever.

And holidays, he added mentally, were just plain stupid.

* * *

November, 15 years ago, Flint, MI.

The wind blew the hat until it came to rest outside a truck stop just a few blocks from the dead man’s house. And there it waited. Eventually, a long-distance driver came out of the establishment, burping in a very satisfied way and carrying a clipboard, a set of keys, and a travel mug full of joe, piping hot and twice as strong.

He walked toward his rig, and almost tripped over the hat on his way. Then he paused and looked down at it, tipped his head to one side, and shrugging, bent to pick it up. It wasn't a bad hat. Nothing he’d wear, but the thing had character. He didn’t really want it. He wasn’t sure what possessed him to take the thing, but take it he did. He set it on top of the CB radio inside the truck, and let it ride there as he headed for his next stop in New York’s southern tier. It was almost like having a friend along.

Chapter 3

Present Day, Binghamton, N.Y

All week long, Holly had been seeing signs telling her to go home. And now that she’d arrived, she wondered why.

The house was not what she remembered. She hadn't really expected it to be, of course, but the difference was more stark than she'd expected. It hadn’t been painted or occupied in fifteen years. It showed the signs of neglect, too. There were a few shingles missing from the roof. One shutter had come loose and hung by its bottom bolts while the top of it veered out to the side as if threatening to jump. The white paint was peeling and chipped.

A car horn blasted behind her, and Holly damn near jumped out of her seat, glancing reflexively into the rearview mirror. She saw a dark-colored sports car behind her, and even before she managed to put her own sunshine yellow VW Bug into gear to move out of the way, the hot little black car was pulling out and around her. It roared past, its windows too tinted to let her see the impatient jerk who was behind the wheel.

Taking a deep breath, she gently corrected her thoughts. For all she knew, the driver might have been late to pick up his little girl from some event, or maybe he was rushing a sick relative to the hospital. He could have a very good reason for his impatience, and she shouldn’t judge.

She let the tense feeling run off her shoulders like water off a raincoat, and eased her Bug into the worn dirt driveway. It used to be pretty solid and bare. Now, grass and weeds had come up, and they brushed the underside of her car noisily as she drove over them.

She brought the car to a stop and got out, then stood there for a moment as memories tried to sweep in. She could hear childish laughter–her own, and her baby sister’s–drifting in from a happy past. She could almost see the two of them bundled in snowsuits to the point where Holly could barely bend and little Noelle looked like the pink version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, her cheeks, cherry red, her nose and mouth covered by a scarf with snowmen all over it. She was walking, but only just, and holding Holly’s hand, both of them in mittens as they tromped through the snow toward the place where they’d left their sled the day before.

She sighed and stared up at the two-story house. It was an ordinary frame house, nothing fancy, no real style or design to it. It was over a century old, drafty, poorly insulated, and probably needed a new roof and wiring and furnace and God only knew what else. It hadn’t been in great shape when she’d lived in it as a child. She remembered her dad calling it a fixer-upper.

“Why do you want me here?” she asked the house, or maybe she was asking her mom. She wasn’t sure. “What’s the point?”

There was a roar, and then a horn. She didn’t jump this time, just turned slowly to look toward the road where that same black sports car had returned, and sat there, growling like an agitated panther. Its tinted window slid slowly down, and she saw a man’s face, hidden behind dark sunglasses.

Something wafted from him, a feeling like a breeze filled with tiny electric sparks.

She lifted her brows. “You again?” she asked

He frowned, glanced at her car, and then back at her. “Yeah, sorry about that. I was in a hurry.”

“Didn’t do you much good, though, did it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, wherever you were in such a hurry to go, you’re still not there.”

He tipped his head slightly to one side, reached up to pull off his sunglasses, as if it would help him to interpret her foreign language if he could see her better.

“You should slow down. Learn to enjoy the journey. You never really get where you’re going, anyway.”

“Uh–well, where I’m going is the Best Western. And I sure as hell hope I’m going to get there.”

She nodded, and thought he was only pretending not to get her deeper meaning. He looked intelligent enough. Dark hair, nice face. Deep chocolate eyes that made her tummy tighten up if she looked directly into them. And his mouth–well, she just wasn’t going to look at that anymore at all. There was something way too sensual about those lips.

“I haven’t been back here in fifteen years,” she said, “but unless they’ve moved it, you’re pretty close.” She pointed. “Back the way you came, five miles, then take a right at the light. You won’t see it until you get around the big bend in the road.”

He nodded. “Thanks.” He slid his glasses back on, giving her a more thorough look from behind them. It felt like it, anyway. Though she supposed she could have been imagining it.

“Merry Christmas,” she called.

“Yeah.” He glanced at her, lips pulled tight, then pulled away.

She shrugged, and went up to the mailbox. The key was right where Aunt Sheila had told her it would be. So she took it out, went to the front door, and let herself in. She didn’t even take time to look around, at first. She knew herself well enough to realize she’d get lost in memories if she did, and it would be dark in a few hours, so she settled for a quick glance at the note Ms. Sullivan had left on the door.

Welcome home, Holly. It was short notice, but I did what I could to give you a comfortable stay. The electric and water are on, but the furnace isn’t. No time for the repairs it apparently needs. So I had a face cord of firewood delivered for you. It’s stacked around the side. You can use the fireplace to keep warm. I stocked the place with lots of bottled water in case the tap tastes rusty. Hot water heater isn’t lit yet, but if you want to, go ahead. It’s been checked out, and while not terribly efficient, it is safe. If you need anything else, don't hesitate to call. Merry Christmas!”

Ms. Sullivan had been a friend to Holly’s mother. Aunt Sheila said she wouldn’t accept any payment for all she’d done, not even for the cost of the gas and electricity, but Holly would find a way. Either that, or she would pay it forward by doing something extra-nice for someone else.

She folded the note and tucked it into her pocket to keep, taking only enough time to start a small fire in the hearth before she headed back outside. She still needed to unload her personal things, groceries, and supplies from the car. She’d bought the fixings for a traditional holiday meal and all the decorations she and Aunt Sheila had inherited from her mom. She had a ton of lights to string before dark. The long night ahead would give her plenty of time to reminisce and explore her childhood home.

* * *

The “For Sale” sign in front of the house where he’d stopped to ask for directions should have given him a clue, but Matthew had brushed it off as meaningless. The house he’d come to look over was unoccupied and had been owned by the bank for fifteen years. Its asking price had just been reduced by a bundle. It could not have been that house. That one had a Beetle-driving hippie-type in residence. Tree hugger. He could spot them a mile away. Even leggy, blond tree huggers with eyes so blue you could fall into them.

Her looks had floored him. Her attitude had irritated him. He’d asked for directions, not a seminar on enjoying the journey. The nerve. And she’d capped it by tossing that useless, meaningless phrase he hated beyond all others, “Merry Christmas,” onto her farewell.

At any rate, he checked into the Best Western, which he’d been assured was the best hotel in the area–not that there were many. He was in a hurry, and starved to boot, so he didn’t even look at the room. Just checked in, got the key, and asked the desk clerk the best place to get a decent meal that wouldn’t take half the damn night.

She pointed to a chain restaurant across the parking lot. Matthew rolled his eyes, and headed there, walking because there was no point in driving that short distance, and the Carrera was probably safer where it was. He’d paid a premium to rent a Porsche for the two-hour drive up from the airport, and more for the insurance. He didn’t want to have to use it.

He ordered a meal, then killed the time waiting for the food to arrive by phoning the Realtor to set up a showing.

Her reaction surprised him. “Uh–Mr. Reid? I, um, it’s the day before Christmas Eve.”

“Yes, I’m pretty clear on the date, Ms. Sullivan. Do you refuse to show houses during the holiday season?”

“Well, no, of course not, I just–I had no idea you were coming in.”

“I didn’t think it would be a problem. You said the place was unoccupied. Look, if you’re too busy with plans...I can swing by and pick up a key and some directions, and show myself around the place.”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Well, what is it then?”

“I have a tenant there. Just for the holiday.”

“A tenant?”

“Well, not exactly a tenant. More like a guest.”

He blinked, completely puzzled.

“She lived there as a child, Mr. Reid. Her parents were friends of mine, and when she called asking if she could spend Christmas there, I thought there’d be no harm. It’s her first time back here in fifteen years and I thought—”

“Her first time back in fifteen years?” he asked. And he immediately thought of the hippie chick in the bright yellow Bug, dispensing pearls of wisdom to hapless strangers. For some reason, thinking that it was her made him a little more irritated than he already was. And he ignored the other feeling. The little trickle of liquid heat that simmered through him at the thought of seeing her again. That made no sense whatsoever. So, as he did with all things that made no sense, he ignored it.

At least he knew where the house was now. “So, are you saying you’re going to give up a sale because you don’t want to inconvenience a freeloader for an hour or two?”

“She’s not a freeloader, Mr. Reid. And of course I don’t want to jeopardize a sale over this. I just want to give her fair warning first, before traipsing in there with a stranger in tow. This is probably a difficult–”

“I have cash, you know. No financing needed. If I buy it, I can pay you just as fast as you can draw up the contracts.”

“If the weather’s not too bad tomorrow–”

“Weather?” He looked out the window. “It’s as clear as a bell outside.”

“We’re supposed to get lake effect tonight. But once the roads are cleared tomorrow, I’ll take a run over there and talk to her. I’m sure she won’t have any problem letting you come in and see the place later in the day, again, weather permitting. All right?”

He rolled his eyes. His food arrived. At least the wait-staff in this town were fast. It didn’t look as if anyone else was. “I’ll call you tomorrow,” he promised. Then he ended the call and looked up at the waitress. “You keep things rolling this fast, and you’re going to get a nice, fat tip.”

She frowned at him, maybe a little insulted, but pasted a smile over it and filled his coffee mug. As she walked away, she paused to speak to another waitress, and he caught a few words.

“What are we supposed to get tonight? One-to-three?”

“I heard three-to-five.”

He shrugged. It didn’t sound so bad to him. He focused on his meal, which wasn’t half-bad.

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