-----Missed Chapter One? Read HERE-----
Shuffling through the paperwork and stacks of unopened mail, Ellie sniffed back the mixture of dust mites meeting loss. She bit back angry words and shameful complaining, noting the two store employees working in silence by the counter of the workshop. Her grandfather’s toy store seemed hardly the place for diatribes or whining, and Ellie knew their spirits already hampered with the funeral earlier that week. She’d assured them their jobs would be safe and asked that they continue their work filling orders and running the store until all the paperwork finalized.
The chair squeaked under her slight weight, the chair itself an antique mess of wood chips and chiseled paint particles. Her grandfather had kept his office in the workshop on the back-end of the store front, “So I can stay closer to my little friends,” he’d say. The toys, of course, were his obsession and great endeavor. He’d crafted wooden sculptures, knickknacks, collectibles, furniture, and toys since he became apprenticed as a twelve-year old, and loved the sport ever since day one. Toy-making served as a delight for him, a channel for the creating of puzzles and magical mystery for children to entangle themselves. He’d loved the whimsy of it all. He’d loved the simplicity of it all. But he was gone on to other adventures, leaving Ellie as sole proprietor of a shop where she’d spent many a summer of her own behind the industrious counters watching and learning.
“September first and those crazies are already playing Christmas songs!” Darcy moaned in the background.
“You’d think they would wait until the other holidays are over. Or at least Halloween,” Declan squinted up at her through his thick, black-rimmed glasses. “Let me wear a scarf or two before we rush into the death grip of winter.”
“Wow. Death grip?”
“Why do you think Christmas happens so early in the winter? If it happened in February when it’s actually cold in Texas, nobody would be around to celebrate. By February, everyone is tired.”
“Valentine’s Day is in February, Declan. The holiday of looove.”
“Because they all want to leave for the equator by that point. The greeting card companies needed a holiday to keep everyone at home.”
“You are so dramatic.”
“Realism, honey. I’m planning a revolution.” Declan shoved his glasses up his nose and focused closer on the wooden block in his palms.
“For what? Scarf-wearers anonymous?”
“For the storm-weary travelers! For the hard-working, bare-knuckled grunts who make this country move!”
“You need to drink less coffee, Dec. Watch where you point that knife.”
Ellie looked up from the stack of bills in her hands. “Guys, what’s this?”
Declan and Darcy glanced over at her from their stools.
“Yes, ma’am?” Darcy asked.
“This notice from the county tax board?”
“Was it in the pile of opened or unopened?”
“Well, let me look, there.” Darcy wiped her palms together, scraping off curlicues and wood crumbs. In rising, she towered above Declan’s wiry frame, whisking new scents of coconut sugar butter in the air with her swishing blue capris.
"This one,” Ellie continued. “About a late tax payment?"
"I'm not sure," Darcy said. "Elwood took care of all the paperwork. I work the front register. I can tell you exactly how many dollars are in the till right now but I have no idea about the office work. Elwood always did all of that."
"Well I guess I just need to sort through everything," Ellie muttered, trying to offer a smile toward the two assistants. She flipped her wrist over to check where the misguided numbers sat accusing her of being late to the office. "This might be a late evening for me."
"Want me to close up shop?" Darcy leaned over the counter hours later, studying the blond head bobbing behind three innocuous, haphazard piles now coating the desk. "Declan clocked out. I've got the door locked. Fridays, Elwood liked to count out, but I can do it."
Ellie blinked up at Darcy, scrunching her eyes in the dim light. She twisted her head and rubbed the back of her neck with one hand.
“That would be great. If you can count down tonight, I’ll work with you next week on getting that figured out. I think I need to get caught up on these piles before anything else.”
“Makes plenty of sense to me, girl. You just let me know if you need help with those stacks.”
“Well. I did have one question. Or a thousand.” Ellie unwrapped her legs from the chair, solidifying her numb feet on the floor before standing up. She flipped through a thinner stack on the edge of the desk for a pink sheet of paper. “There’s this renewal notice for the business license. And enclosed in it was a brochure for the mall development across the street.”
“Psh.” Darcy spat out the distaste before thinking. “He’s been pushing for that development for two years.”
Darcy giggled. “Mr. Something-or-other Jones. He’s a big-city big-shot who wants to buy up all the real estate. He thinks the town has a lot of ‘charm’ but could use some sprucing up.”
Ellie’s lips curled up at Darcy’s description. “He could be right, Darcy.” She stifled her own giggle.
“Oh no.” Darcy shook her head, like a cat shaking away a fly. “He wants every empty building downtown. Plus the full ones. He’s funding the mall expansion and has wanted to buy this lot since he arrived into town. Wants to knock down the shop and put in a parking lot.”
“He even dared to tell Elwood he’d give him a prime location for his shop on the mall’s third story.”
“The mall doesn’t have a third story.”
“Did he think Grandfather would fall for that?”
“He certainly did. Elwood chased him out with that plastic pistol he keeps in that drawer next to ya.”
Ellie’s shoulders shook at the mental picture, and she slapped a gritty hand over her mouth to keep from spitting out the hearty chuckle. “Now that’s Grandfather.”
“Jones came back with a packet of letters saying he’d give a spot on the first floor by the food court. I don’t know if Elwood were considering or not.”
“Never said anything to you?”
“Nope.” Ellie admitted. Without a word, she admitted she hadn’t even spoken to the man since her birthday in February. Her eyes blinked to pull away the guilt and stuff it onto another pile to sort through later on. “I guess that answers that question.”
“I’ll go finish the registers.”
“Thanks, Darcy. I’ll owe you.”
“Just keep paying my check, lady. That’s all I ask!”
Ellie caught the jab and threw it back with a grin. “As long as those registers line up, you’re set. I might even let you take over if you sweet talk me enough.”
Darcy left after a hefty hug and two last offers to buy pizza. Ellie had declined, saying she had a salad in her purse, but the truth was she had half a squashed protein bar and a packet of balsamic vinaigrette in the side pocket, next to a coupon for one dollar off a salad at Hall’s Quick Stop. Her stomach hadn’t rumbled all day, but instead filled with a thick, hollow resolution to sort through the mess and straighten it up. If it took all night, she’d clean up the tedium left by her grandfather and make it her own. It was, after all, her own, whether she wanted it or not.
Around 1:48 am, and Ellie knew the time because she had checked her watch, she heard a rattling click from the front windows. What sounded like metal tapping against glass caught Ellie’s quick attention.
Ellie jumped in her spot, shaken and rattling herself. She ducked down behind the desk. Clattering against the worn tiles in the storefront, glass shards broke open to the elements and to the base of Ellie’s spine. Her mind a blending concoction of exhaustion, expense reports, unpaid bills, and sudden powerlessness, she flew toward the nearest door, stumbling over her purse on the way. The cement floor became an unwelcome guest banging against her knees.
Voices whispered from the storefront. Clenching her quivering jaw, Ellie held in a terrified yell, all while terribly frustrated at the leather straps of her purse. Blasted cross-body purses. A single beam of yellow light flitted through the door to the storeroom and then disappeared back into the storefront. Ellie yanked the strap off her bare foot. That door still sat shut only four feet away, and Ellie hurled herself into it, whirling the handle in her palm and sliding it shut without a sound. The storage room.
Complete darkness surrounded Ellie. She knew boxes in stacks piled high of — everything — filled the room. Years of unsold inventory, extra parts, spare tools, old tools, receipts, taxes, who-knows and whats-its, all crammed into that blank sauna of a storage room.
Feeling through the cobwebs, shuddering and flinging her hands away from her body, Ellie shoved the nearest stack in front of the door. She gripped her bare feet against the cement in order to wrangle the demanding boxes from their spot. Sweat even began to build up as she willed her bodyweight against the — four? five? boxes — away from their comfort zones. Surely they will think the door is busted and move on, if they try to get in here, Ellie thought.
Wiping her palms against each other, Ellie considered the options. She slung the leather purse strap over her head into its familiar slot against her neck, and dug into the contents. Her fingers slid around the smooth purple wallet, the slick, shiny tube of retired lip gloss, and the prickly pink hairbrush. As she rifled and rooted for her phone, that startled brain of hers began to untangle from its coiled state of petrification. It seemed to cough, and then sneeze. Your phone’s on the desk.
My phone’s on the desk.
Ellie closed her eyes against the void, wrinkling her nose like she did when something ridiculous obstructed her path. She wrinkled her nose at flat tires, at delayed mail, and expired coupons. And Ellie wrinkled her nose at the phone on the desk. It couldn’t see her, but it felt her exasperation and shrugged with a sheepish smile.
Fine! Ellie again wiped her palms together, curling her cold toes against the cement. I’ll stay here and wait for the robbers to come kill me. Or I’ll move another stack of boxes in front of the door.
The darkness bit its lip.
Ellie slid one foot toward her left, against the cool concrete and the dust covering it, and then waved her hand to feel for cardboard. Another step, sliding, and a waving of the hands, and smack, she found more boxes. Wiggling through the gritty dust beneath her toes, she glided to the other side, wedged against the other boxes, and coerced the stack into moving. Slithering between the stacks, she inched the bundle, as tall as her frame and three times as wide, behind the first barricade stack.
After quite a bit of huffing and heaving and silent groaning, Ellie’s mind began to quell. Nobody can get through the two stacks. Oxygen bumbled around her throat and cleared out of her chest, leaving room for chaos. Her eyes had still not adjusted to the lack of light, and the enormity of murky space began to whirl before her eyes.
Her brain began to click, filling the silence. This is the only door, right? Ellie scrunched her nose, pursing her lips.
I think – I don’t know. Maybe I can find another way out. Or a place to sit.
Ellie’s eyes began to tingle in the shrill silence, and, blinking, she let her palms lead the way.
Here's a new little writing project I've been working on. Hope you enjoy Ellie's adventures in this new holiday novella, "The Christmas Room.
Perhaps the greatest fault of clutter is its insistence upon collecting dust. Ellie swept the shelf-full of knickknacks, toys, dolls, colorful stacking boxes, and mangy-haired dolls into a dingy cardboard box she’d brought from the office, while holding in a sneeze. These items would be packed up and stored in the garage. These items do not sell a house. Clean-cut lines, shiny place settings, crisp drapes and flooring, and fresh paint would sell a house, and Ellie knew it. Her job at Grand Market Real Estate was to make sure their listings booked it off the market. Toys did not sell homes; toys did not bring in buyers. Ellie brought in buyers.
“Pam, I’m going to need a new chair for this room,” Ellie called to the brunette in the next room, setting down the box in the corner next to the door. She wiped her hands against each other, feeling the nit and grit grinding upon her palms. “And a tube of cleaning wipes.”
“Make that two chairs,” Pam replied, holding up her list, “Because I hear the rules of feng shui have updated to include even numbers.”
“I think you’re wrong about that.” Ellie’s smile lit up a laugh in her jingling voice. “How about you look up ‘revised ancient rules of organization from Japanese culture,’ on the interwebs and see what you find.”
“Tsk!” Pam chided. “I saw it in an article yesterday.”
“On what blog?”
“It was in the Current.”
“You know the Current is not current.”
“Well then you tell me this room doesn’t need a matching chair.”
“Fine,” Ellie gave in. “In the name of matching’s sake.”
“And my obsessive compulsion.”
Pam’s white linen pants swished as she emerged from the second bedroom, her brown leather purse bumping against her leg. “I’m assessing the bathrooms next. You want the Master or the third bedroom?”
“The bedroom.” Ellie leaned over the marble slab counter, gazing at the sketch before her. The white-blonde side French braid swept over her shoulder, its curled edges tickling her cheek. “My kitchen is about ready.”
Ellie’s phone buzzed just as Pam’s curly hair bobbed around her nodding confirmation, and Ellie flipped over the black device as it went to voicemail. Ellie sighed, letting the breath whisk out of her mouth as a round, “O,” as if to complain, “Oh, why is he calling now?”
“Hey, Kiddo, it’s Dad. Wanted to check in with you to see if everything is alright with you. Look, hon, I hate to call early in the morning; I know you’re at work. I’d rather talk to you in person. Your mom’s dad isn’t doing so well. When we went to visit him last night, the—well, hon—the doctor doesn’t think he has much longer. Please call me back when you get a chance. I hope you’re having a good time with those houses. We’re both proud of you. Um. Hope you can call soon, hon. Talk to you then.”
Back at the office, Ellie plucked at the various keys on her laptop keyboard, setting up the inventory request forms like usual. Her desk towered with massive piles of folders, papers, wallpaper sample books, paint chip samples, three to-go cups of coffee, a large open-lidded box of pens, and one solar-paneled bobbling Hawaiian doll dancing an endless hula. Aunt Kay sent one every holiday and Ellie kept the latest on her desk, the others filling the kitchen windowsill. She allowed herself one cluttered space at home, because the dancing figurines reminded her of the sun’s warmth, even when she couldn’t see past the clouds. But just the one. Her office was another story. The room needed all the sunshine it could get, as the dreary October days seemed to settle layer by layer over the small town, one gray sheet of clouds at a time, until the light and warmth squelched out under everyone’s plastic rain boots.
“Ellie, have you seen the order from Sherlin’s Paint?” Greg stuck his head around the corner in the hall.
“Nope. No deliveries from Sherlin’s yet this week.”
“Keep an eye out.”
Because her desk sat in the front room of their converted house/real estate office, Ellie often shared the receptionist’s tasks. Ellie knew she stood a mere step above Marla on the ladder, because she’d started off doing the exact same thing, and had only worked into her new position after bartering personal office space for a pay raise. Greg gave few handouts, unless a prospective client needed a pen, and even then he’d add a supply fee in the final round of paperwork. But Greg knew good when he saw it, and Ellie exuded results. He even provided the desk for her.
“Ellie, you’ve got a call on line two,” Marla stated, pressing a button on the body of the phone and replacing the receiver. “Said it’s Walt.”
“Okay,” Ellie murmured, closing her eyes. Dad never called. And absolutely never twice in one day. Heaving in a breath, she prepared for news. Grabbing her handset, she fixed a smile on her lips. The listener can hear it, after all. “Hey, Dad.”
“Sorry I hadn’t called back yet. It’s been so crazy today.”
“I’m sure. I didn’t want to bug you, either, but I needed to get hold of you.”
“That’s why I’m calling, Ellie. He’s not doing well. He wants to see you, asked specifically for you.”
“I’ll try to get up there after I get off work this afternoon.”
“Dad.” Ellie lowered her voice, glancing over at Marla, and then buried her face against her shoulder. “I am on a tight deadline right now. The office needs me and I cannot spare a moment before we close.”
“Ellie, I’m afraid you’re going to regret waiting. Life doesn’t wait for your work schedule.”
“It has to today. I’m sorry.”
Walt held his breath, absorbing the news, before clearing his throat. “Good, then. I’ll tell your mom you’ll be here as soon as you possibly can. We appreciate it. See you soon, hon.” He tapped the ‘end’ button, finalizing the phone call, just as the heart monitor inside the room behind him flat-lined. A stout, searing wail of an alert rang from the bedside device and several nurses rushed in.
Walt grimaced, his forehead furrowing, and he took the few steps to stand in the doorway. Meryl sat next to her father, holding his hand, her eyes fixed on his blank stare facing the ceiling. Meryl’s head lowered and Walt strode over to her, placing his warm, weathered hands on her shoulders. His hands squeezed, offering whatever hope or peace they could, knowing the lives of his family would change forever. If only he knew how much.
**** Stay tuned for Chapter 2! ****
Feel free to share with a friend who needs a happy holiday story. Have yourself a merry little Christmas, friends.
This time of year we love to watch those Hallmark movies and snuggle up with a good book and a hot cup of cocoa or coffee.
Here are delightful, cozy stories from some of your favorite Clean Reads authors to fill those hours with enjoyable literature.
The Starlight Inn
by Lucie Ulrich
On her way to celebrate her birthday and Christmas with her family, Ella Dixon finds herself trapped in the middle of a blizzard. She seeks refuge at The Starlight Inn. Though the inn is full, an elderly guest offers to share her room. Accepting the kind offer, Ella soon realizes Tillie Spencer isn’t your average “little old lady.” She knows things nobody else does, and appears to come and go on a whim.
Nick Wallace runs the inn along with sister, Fran. The attraction Nick feels for Ella is instantaneous and unexpected, but with the miles that separate them, and both busy with their careers, Nick doubts much will come of their Christmas Eve meeting. Tillie, on the other hand, holds a much different view.
Though Tillie won’t admit to being an angel, Nick and Ella think otherwise. How else can they explain the twists and turns that began at The Starlight Inn.
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A Christmas Coffee
by Laura Marshall
Villa Bellisimo along with Master Chef Antonia Coronada invite you to Sicily where you will be immersed in the art and passion of Italian culinary delights.
Sarah Cooper is still trying to find her place in the world after her husband died two years ago on Christmas Day. When her parents give her an early holiday gift, it may be just the opportunity she needs.
Parker Matrone is the founder and CEO of the billion dollar company, Coffee Grounds. There's something about Sarah he can't resist, but he's been burned before and is now raising his two young sons alone.
Will they decide loving again is worth the risk? And what of the antique Christmas quilt beneath which Sarah dreams of Christmas' past, present, and future? Come explore Italy in this Christian Christmas romance where dreams do come true and life begins anew.
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by Christina Lorenzen
Stranded by a snowstorm, Carrie Sanders is left holding a bag an old woman she’d been talking to left behind in the airport coffee shop. Mystified by the woman’s disappearance, she sits on the bench staring at the snow globe that was in the bag.
Inside the glittery snowy world it’s Christmas during the 1940s. Fighting sleep, the next thing she knows she’s in the arms of the soldier she last saw skating on the pond in the snow globe. He’s no stranger, but the boy next door who never forgot her.
Purchase on Amazon for $.99:
Love Before Honor
by Nicole Zoltak
To avenge his love's death, Sir Gerald challenges her murderer to a duel. Her twin, however, feels that Alice never loved the knight and gives him a tea that sends him to into the future, to the Regency era.
Lady Vanessa seeks a Christmas treat when she hears something outside the manor. Upon investigation, she sees a man dressed in armor. Unwilling to turn away a confused man with the approaching holiday, she convinces her parents to house Gerald until the new year.
Scandal has forced her parents to accept William as their daughter's best chance at marriage. Although rich, he does not understand her or her love of books, whereas Gerald listens to her, confides in her and she him. With the approaching holiday, nothing is certain - not whether Gerald can discover a way back to his duel, whether he can move on from Alice, and not whether this Christmas will be a happy one for either Gerald or Vanessa.
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From The Ashes
by Janet Butler
Concert artist James Michael Goodwin has been in a race against time and lost: crippled and unable to perform, he decides to end it all. But fate intervenes in the form of Melody Rowland, who reaches him on a level no woman has done before. Can James trust Melody with his music…and his heart?
Melody Rowland is on the verge of launching her performing career when James Michael Goodwin walks into her life again, after nearly destroying her four years before. Soon, she realizes that playing his music is one thing; admitting she’s never stopped loving him is another.
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by Lynn Spangler
She had loved. And she had lost.
Dayna Stone had lost her husband eight years earlier when their daughter, Khloe, was only four months old. She had survived the devastating loss of her husband, only to find out she’d likely lose her daughter as well to cancer.
Eddie Kringle is captivated by his beautiful neighbor and her equally beautiful daughter. Born a Magi, Eddie has issues coming to grips that Magi magic cannot cure the child, though his father, Kris, is more than capable. He and Dayna lean on each oth-er as the days pass.
They grow closer and a bond is formed.
A tragedy befalls them on Thanksgiving. Can their love, and the intense love they feel for Khloe, be the miracle they are looking for?
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Eight Birds For Christmas
by Tara Mayoros
In the Christmas novella Eight Birds for Christmas, a Holiday funeral sends Laidan into a dormancy of sadness. Holed up in her mother's lake house with her best friend and her bodyguard, birds appear one by one as gifts that help her through a time of grieving. Each birds carries with it a word and a hope that things will begin to look up.
Hurt from the realization that the rock star life Laidan led had made her selfish, the birds reveal forgotten memories and glimpses into how she can become a better person. It will take confronting her past to make peace with her future. By taking to heart the gifts the birds bring, Laidan begins to realize the true meaning of Christmas and that there are other ways that she can share her song.
Purchase on Amazon for $.99;
White Christmas Kiss
by Kathy Bosman
Rachelle runs a little wedding chapel on the Coderica Passenger Liner. Two years on the passenger liner haven’t helped her find peace from past mistakes. Ray brings his girlfriend on the Coderica’s grand cruise to Europe. When his plans to marry her in the little chapel go horribly wrong and the relationship fails, Ray and Rachelle are drawn to each other like moths to a flame. Romance blossoms in Europe, culminating on Christmas Day. But the cruise ends and Rachelle isn’t sure she’s ready to leave the Coderica with Ray. Will the memory of their white Christmas kiss be strong enough to bring them together forever?
Purchase on Amazon for $2.99:
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