Thursday, May 1, 2014

Third Time's the Charm, A Christmas by the Fire Blog Hop Story!

HarperImpulse and their Written Fireside Writers are on the cutting edge of publishing and, as such, we've hosted a fabulous blog hop during the month of August!

Fifteen authors, fifteen stories...
one shared, starting paragraph!

Read a taste of what's coming for ChristmasRead past Written Fireside storiesEnter our fabulous giveaway!

Schedule of participating authors:
Lori Connelly - Aug 1,2,3 
Erin Lawless - Aug 4,5
Mandy Baggot - Aug 6,7 
Aimee Duffy  - Aug 8,9
Teresa F. Morgan - Aug 10,11 
Angela Campbell - Aug 12,13  
Lisa Fox - Aug 14,15 
Lynn Marie Hulsman - Aug 16,17
Linn B. Halton - Aug 18,19 
Carmel Harrington - Aug 20,21 
Charlotte Phillips - Aug 22,23
Romy Sommer - Aug 24,25
Jane Lark - Aug 26,27 
Zara Stoneley - Aug 28,29 
AJ Nuest - Aug 30,31

Welcome to the final installment in the Christmas by the Fire Blog Hop -- Third Time's the Charm! It's been a whirlwind event, with fabulous prizes and giveaways, including print books, e-books and A $70 AMAZON GIFT CARD! Be sure to follow the links below to see each author's entry and don't forget to enter for your chance to WIN! 

All fifteen participating authors in this blog hop were given the same starting paragraph, written by the talented Georgia Beyers! These short stories will be published later this year as a Christmas e-book anthology by HarperImpulse, and it's been super exciting to be a part of this event! Both today and tomorrow, I'll be posting my short story in two installments for your reading pleasure. Be sure to check back to read the conclusion to Third Time's the Charm tomorrow!

Here's the winning entry as chosen by the fabulous team at HarperImpulse:  

‘Charlotte sat at the bus stop wondering whether she would make the naughty or nice list this year. Last year she had rescued a stray kitten and therefore considered herself most definitely ‘nice’. This year she had broken Daniels heart into a million tiny pieces, so ‘naughty’ seemed to be the only answer. There’d be no Santa Claus coming down her chimney anytime soon.’

And here's the first installment in this continuing story, Third Times the Charm:

Snow whispered from the blank chalkboard sky to land on her red-and-white striped tights, coating her knees and the curled tips of her green elf boots in flakes of dusty white. She sighed and plucked at her stockings. The little jingle bells tacked to her toes tinkled a cheery song as she tapped the sides of her feet together.
Maybe she should have just listened to her mother and kept her big mouth shut. Lord knew she’d had dates with a long string of men that had been nowhere near as comfortable as the platonic, stuck-in-limbo relationship she’d shared with Daniel. If nothing else, biting her tongue would at least given her a shot at a date for New Year’s Eve.
So what if Daniel had gotten jealous over the kiss she’d exchanged with Walter from the mailroom during the employee Christmas party? Wasn’t a reaction from him what she’d been hoping for in the first place? Hadn’t her plan been to get Daniel’s attention and motivate him to make a decision about where they were headed?
Too bad life never worked out the way it did in the movies, and her mistake had rebounded like a swift kick in the pants. With his broad shoulders and the way his dark mop of wavy hair always seemed to fall at just the right angle across his blueberry eyes, Daniel’s arrival at Brigg’s Department store had turned the heads of every female associate in their employ. And when the first rumors had ground through the mill Brigg’s newest inventory manager had the hots for her, Charlotte had to admit, she’d been more than a little bit thrilled.
Unfortunately, that’s where things between her and Daniel had both started and ended. She picked a few stray cat hairs off her coat and tossed them aside. Sure, she’d been happily surprised the first time they’d run into each other at the movie theatre. Even more so when the following two months had lead them to a standing date every Friday to see the latest blockbuster. But since when did the sitting in a darkened theatre for two hours without exchanging a word of conversation constitute a relationship? For God’s sake, they hadn’t even held hands, much less kissed.
Apparently, none of those things mattered to Daniel, even though she’d yet to receive an explanation for his actions. The minute he’d spied her and Walter swapping some holiday cheer beneath the mistletoe, he’d cornered their co-worker and stated she was officially “off limits” before storming out of the employee lounge.
Shock had been her initial reaction and, though she was loath to admit it, maybe a smidgen of “serves him right” had kept her from chasing after him. Add a few hot toddies on an empty stomach and, half an hour later, anger had kicked her surprise to the curb. Not that Daniel’s claim would have necessarily ticked her off if his statement had been anywhere near true. She clenched her jaw, knees bouncing, pony tail whispering along the back of her shoulders as she shook her head. Yet, for him to insinuate they shared anything past friendship without even discussing it with her had crossed a line…and put her in a terrible spot where she’d been left no option but to set the record straight.
Marching directly back to the loading dock, she’d stormed up to where he’d been tinkering with a faux fireplace and promptly stomped out whatever sparks had been smoldering between them. Until she said otherwise, they were friends and nothing more. Acquaintances who worked at Brigg’s Department store, shared a love of action flicks and the occasional box of Raisinets. Whoever she dated and when was her business, not his, and if he’d gotten off his butt and made a move while he’d had the chance maybe he wouldn’t have been threatened by someone as harmless as Walter Stout from the mailroom. God!
The minute the words had left her mouth, hurt and confusion had slammed into Daniel’s beautiful blue eyes. He’d turned and disappeared between a row of metal shelves stacked with inventory in the loading dock. Ever since then, during the two-week countdown to Christmas Eve, a wall of tension had been building between them, brick by solid, square brick.
Yep, ‘naughty’ definitely defined her December. She’d be lucky to find a lump of coal in her stocking this year.
“Whoo hoo!” A fur-festooned woman staggered toward the stop, flapping a gloved hand in the air. Her orthopedic shoes slid precariously over the ice-slicked sidewalk, the gift-wrapped bundles in her arms adding to the topsy-turvy pitch of her gait. “Give an old woman a hand, will you, dearie?”
Charlotte rolled her eyes, but left the bench to clasp the matron’s forearms and lead her safely toward the seat. Boxes tumbled and smacked the wet concrete, and she quickly rescued them before the snow could damage the paper or bows.
“That’s a love, dearie. I’m sorry I’m late. Christmas is always my busiest time of year.” The woman wiggled her fingers and sat, leaving Charlotte to rescue the last two gifts before they had the misfortune to slip into the street.
Fabulous. Why did she always attract the wackos? Late for what, exactly? The cocktails and hors d’oeuvres Charlotte was about to bust out of her purse? Not that the ridiculous elf costume she’d been ordered to wear in place of her white smock helped the case for reality. No doubt the woman thought Charlotte was one of Santa’s helpers instead of a single girl working a double to earn a little extra cash for some Christmas shopping of her own.
She stacked the sparkly red-and-green gifts beside the woman on the bench, carefully steadying them with her hands. Most of them were so light, they seemed to contain nothing but air. Then again, why would anyone wrap a bunch of empty boxes and decide to go gallivanting through downtown Chicago on Christmas Eve? Especially at five o’clock, the stores crowded with last-minute shoppers in their mad rush to finish their lists.
“Lovely weather we’re having, don’t you think?” The woman adjusted the holiday charms on her bracelet before folding her hands on her lap. Flakes wafted down to catch in her false eyelashes, melting to droplets on her bright red lipstick and the plastic glittery poinsettia pinned to her lapel. “I’ve decided to give you three.”
Charlotte darted a frown around the glass enclosure of the bus stop. Again, with the obscure references. Three what? Presents? Yep, the poor old goose definitely had a screw loose. Maybe she believed she was some sort of do-good Christmas fairy.
“Oh, that’s okay. I’m sure you have those gifts tagged for someone else.” A slight tip forward, and Charlotte checked the oncoming traffic down the street. Relief warmed her insides as she read the lighted marquee on the approaching bus. She pressed her ear muffs tighter to her head and smoothed back a few loose strands from her ponytail, crammed her hands between her thighs and shivered. Even though she’d only been waiting a few minutes, her feet were like two blocks of ice.
“Well, here’s my ride.” She stood and faced the lady as the bus whined to a halt at the corner, its diesel exhaust quickly whisked away by the bitter breeze streaming in off the lake. “Merry Christmas.”
The mysterious twinkle in the woman’s gray eyes put the white lights strung on the trees along the boulevard to shame. “Oh, I’ll be waiting here to find out.” 
Alarm jabbed the pit of Charlotte’s stomach and she stutter stepped forward, the bells ringing like reindeer games from her feet. Didn’t the old woman have anywhere to go? God, she couldn’t sit out in this weather. She’d be a brown, furry popsicle by morning. “Wait, are you sure you’re all right? Do you want me to call someone to pick you up?”
A clever chuckle bounced through her generous bosom. “No need to butter me up, dearie. I already told you, I’m only giving you three.” She jerked her chin toward the bus and her snow globe earrings swung back and forth above her collar. “Go along now. You’ve got work to do.”
“Okay…” The bus horn beeped the driver’s impatience and Charlotte backed toward the open door, tugging her transit pass from the slash pocket of her woolen pea coat. “If you’re sure you don’t need some help.”
“Help, indeed.” The woman shook her head. “Just try not to dally. I’ve several stops before midnight.”
Oh, good. Hopefully one of them was the nearest psychiatric ward to have her meds checked. Charlotte smiled with a nod, climbed aboard the bus and bumped down the packed aisle toward the back door. A small wave through the window, and she grabbed the hand rail as the bus lurched and chugged down the street. 

* * *

“Charlotte, a customer is asking for three of those Christmas tree candy dishes. Can you check with Daniel and see if we’ve got any more in stock?”
Oh, God no.
Charlotte jerked her head up from where she’d knelt beside an aisle kiosk to re-fold the holiday place mats, only to meet the wide-eyed blink of the housewares floor manager. Fiona crossed her arms, one of her finely-plucked eyebrows hiking toward her bouffant hairline. “Is there a problem?”
“No, no problem.” Charlotte offered a weak smile, while inside her stomach twisted in knots. She pushed to her feet and nodded. “Be right back.” …from a living nightmare. From facing Daniel for the first time in weeks.  
The door to the loading dock was the one barrier she’d not breached since the night of the Christmas party. In fact, going anywhere near it made her throat close and the edges of her vision flicker like she was about to faint. Avoiding Daniel had become an exercise she practiced with increasing dexterity, even lingering near the employee lockers long after her shift ended so she wouldn’t accidently run into him clocking out.
Her hand trembled as she pushed against the swinging door, but she filled her lungs and pressed on. There was no need to bring up a moment she was fairly certain they both regretted. Regardless of the way she missed his smile, the excitement in her belly each time she left her apartment for the theatre or her anticipation over finding him waiting outside, what was done, was done. She would act professional, get the candy dishes and vamoose…and then seriously consider finding a new job as soon as the holiday madness was over.
The mellow illumination of the emergency overhead lights seemed strange in comparison to the stark halogens that usually washed row after row of shelves in the loading dock to a brightness which rivaled the sun. Charlotte frowned at the closed bay door, glanced left and right at the abandoned forklifts and darkened window of Daniel’s office. An eerie silence tickled the little hairs on the back of her neck. Where was everyone? In the past, these last few hours before the store closed on Christmas Eve were usually as frantic as the North Pole.
A metallic clank was accompanied by a soft curse, and she followed the noise around the last grouping of metal shelves to the product assembly area. 
Her feet froze to the wooden floor…an exact match to the motionless air in her lungs.
Daniel knelt before a faux fireplace, a tool belt buckled around the navy Dockers stretched along his thighs, dark hair hanging in his eyes as he cranked a wrench near the grate. Not that his doing so was by any means bizarre. She’d found him putting all sorts of items together in the loading dock several times.
The angle of his shoulders is what put her off, the slouch of his open collar and the way he’d rolled the cuffs of his soft blue dress shirt to just above his elbows. Usually, Daniel was a worn jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. His job was too physical for much else.
There’d been only one other time she’d seen him wearing something so nice, kneeling before a fireplace like he was now. The night of the Christmas party, when she stormed out to the loading dock and ranted at him like a drunken lunatic.
She darted a glance around the huge, dimly lit space. In fact, everything was like the night of the Christmas party. Her brows shot heavenward and she slapped a hand to her chest. Her flirty red cocktail dress, her peep-toe heels… Even the life-sized Santa that had once waved a greeting to customers and spouted a mechanical “ho, ho, ho” was back in the corner, before she’d told Daniel how much it creeped her out and he’d stashed it somewhere out of sight.
Smoothing her hand down the back of her head, she brought the curled ends of her auburn hair around her cheek. What had happened to her pony tail?
“Hold up a second.” She slashed her hand across the space in front of her and tentatively advanced, her entire body buzzing like she’d been jolted by an exposed wire. “What’s going on?”
“I could just as easily ask you the same thing.” Daniel dropped the wrench and shoved his hand up inside the firebox. He frowned and placed a palm on the fake slate exterior beside the grizzled five o’clock shadow darkening his jaw. “’Cause I sure hell hope you’re not expecting me to ask if Walter’s a good kisser.”
What? She slumped, her jaw dropping the same distance as her shoulders. “Just wait a second.” She flapped her hands to cool off her warm cheeks, clamped them on top of her head and then flapped them again like she was preparing to take flight. This couldn’t be happening. Daniel acted as if he’d just left the party. Like they were back at the moment when she’d stormed onto the loading dock and read him the riot act.
“I don’t understand what’s happening. How’d I get here?” She pointed at the ground, stumbling forward a few more steps. “Have I already yelled at you? And, if so, what did I say?”
He sat back from the fireplace, his shirt sleeve pulling taut across one tightly toned bicep as he raked his heavy hair away from his brow, and scowled at her like she’d lost her damn mind. And maybe she had. “Exactly how many hot toddies did you drink? We were at the Christmas party, remember? Not thirty minutes ago? We planned to meet there and I walked in to find you kissing Walter…remember?”
Right! Except that didn’t explain the missing two weeks, and it nowhere near explained where her elf costume had gone off to or all the hours she’d lain awake in bed wishing she could re-do this very moment. What…had all those sleepless nights been a dream? Or maybe the more obvious choice—exhaustion had finally caught up with her, she’d fallen asleep on the bus and this was the dream.
“Ah, okay.” She nodded. “I get it. I just need to wake up and this will all go away.”
Too bad, because she really would’ve appreciated this second chance. She would’ve more carefully considered her words before speaking. Given Daniel a chance to justify his actions.
Sadness shimmered through his eyes, at complete odds with the soft laugh that fell from his kissable lips. “Seems to me, I was the one who needed to wake up.”
Ouch. Charlotte bit her tongue against laying into him like she had in reality. Apparently, her subconscious was working overtime to deal with the remorse.
She smacked a hand against her cheek and waited, but the loading dock stayed firmly in focus. Dammit, why did that never work? A hard pinch of her arm and Daniel stood, propping his hands on his hips. “Um, what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to wake myself up.” She lunged forward, executed a few quick jumping jacks and hopped around on one foot.
Nothing. God, she must be nearly catatonic. Bracing her hands on her knees, she leaned forward to catch her breath. Why couldn’t the bus just hit a nice, big pothole? That usually jarred her awake.
“Normally, I find your quirky sense of humor pretty funny.” He crossed his arms, and her insides melted as the curled tips of his thick lashes drew together in a squint. “But I gotta tell ya, these gymnastics of yours are a little freaky. Why don’t you go back to the party? I’m sure Walter is wondering where you are.”
Another nice zinger. Geesh, she really had to get a handle on her guilt. Still, the party did present an interesting idea. Maybe a change of scenery would do the trick.
She spun on her heel and headed for the exit, placed her hand on the door and turned to face Daniel one last time. Fantasy or reality, she could not resist the temptation to have the last word—another of her eccentricities no one seemed to appreciate but him. “I don’t want Walter, you big dummy. If that gorgeous head of yours contained one ounce of sense, you’d know exactly who it is that I want.”
She pushed through the doorway and cold air blasted against her cheeks. Tripping forward, feet slipping and sliding, she pin-wheeled her arms and face planted right against the glass shelter of the bus stop.
The old woman turned on the seat, smiled and waved her inside.
What. The. Hell! On stilted legs, Charlotte pushed away from the glass, rounded the shelter and sat. A glance over her shoulder and she blinked at the revolving door of her apartment building, slowly grinding to a halt. She ran a hand down the back of her head and tugged on her ponytail, tapped her feet together and the little bells on her toes jingled a happy tune. There was no way she’d fallen asleep while waiting for the bus. It was too cold outside to get comfortable.
“Well, that didn’t go as pleasant as expected.”
Charlotte slowly turned her head. Somehow, this strange woman had sent her back through time. Holy hell, maybe she was a Christmas fairy. “That was no dream, was it? I was really there with Daniel…in the loading dock.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself.” The bracelet on her wrist twinkled like starlight as the woman lifted her arm and plucked one of the little charms off the chain. She held it over the pile of gifts and offered it to Charlotte, though, to her, the stack of brightly wrapped gifts seemed to have shrunken somehow. Almost as if it had been reduced by half. “Compared to some, you did fairly well. On a scale of one to ten, I’ll give you a solid four for humor and originality.”
Yay! Go me for being below average. Charlotte opened her palm and the woman dropped the charm into her hand. She flipped the delicate snowflake back and forth with her fingertip, winced as it flared before a shimmering trail of dust floated skyward and the charm lost its luster. She closed her fingers and made a tight fist. If she was reading the situation correctly, she still had two more chances.
“You may want to consider Daniel’s feelings in this moment. What is the first thing you would’ve thought, walking into the Christmas party to find him kissing another girl?”
Charlotte grimaced. Her heart would have been crushed, regardless of his intentions or the vagueness of their relationship status.
The bus screeched to a stop at the corner and her bedazzled fairy nodded toward the street. “Remember, there are two sides to every story. Perhaps it’s time you ask Daniel for his.”
Her mind whirring the same speed as the glistening traffic rushing down the boulevard, Charlotte rose from the bench and climbed the steps like a robot, bouncing from one padded shoulder to the next toward the back of the bus. The old woman smiled and handed a wrapped box to a passerby as the gears lurched and the bus trundled down the street.

Stay tuned for Part II, coming tomorrow...

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