Did I want hearty, traditional winter fare or something to remind me of summers at the lake?
Prime rib with roasted vegetables or grilled salmon with rice pilaf?
"You have to make up your mind sometime, Merry." Vicky handed the waitress her menu. "I'll have the lamb shanks, please."
"That sounds good," I said. "Me, too."
"You always have what I have," Vicky said.
"That's because I can't decide for myself."
The waitress returned with a bottle of nice red wine and went through the ritual of opening and tasting. We were savoring the first sips when she came back, bearing an overflowing platter, and placed it on the table. Charcuterie: a selection of cheeses and paper-thin slices of cured meats with an assortment of pickles and nuts served with hunks of freshly baked baguette.
"That looks delicious," Vicky said, "but you have the wrong table. We didn't order it."
"Compliments of the chef," the waitress said with a grin.
"Nice." I picked a tiny knife off the tray and sliced myself a sliver of creamy blue-veined cheese. "I heard they hired a new chef. My mom says the food's improved dramatically. Is that why you wanted to try it? Wow, this is marvelous." I let the deep, sharp flavor linger in my mouth. My taste buds did a happy dance. Then I noticed the slight flush on my best friend's face. "Oh," I said. "I get it."
Vicky Casey and I were at the Yuletide Inn for a special treat of a fancy dinner. It was a Tuesday night in mid-December, and both of us were run off our feet at work, but Vicky had convinced me (without much difficulty, I will confess) that we needed a break in the midst of the madness of the Christmas rush. I own a shop, Mrs. Claus's Treasures, in Rudolph, New York, which we call America's Christmas Town. Vicky's the owner and chief baker of Victoria's Bake Shoppe. It was her idea to have a special girls' night out, to relieve some of the stress of the season. Judging by the high color of her cheeks, clashing dreadfully with the lock of purple hair falling across her forehead, Vicky had an ulterior motive.
"Evening, ladies," said the deep voice of the ulterior motive.
A man stood beside our table, dressed in a chef's uniform of white jacket and gray striped pants. The logo of the Yuletide Inn was embroidered onto the jacket, with his name written in script beneath. Mark Grosse, Executive Chef.
Every woman in town was gossiping about this man. For once the gossip was understated. He was tall and lean, with dark hair cut short, enormous brown eyes specked with bits of green, high cheekbones, and blindingly white teeth.
"Hi," Vicky squeaked. "Thanks for this."
"I hope you enjoy it." He smiled at her.
"Very nice of you," I said. I might as well not have bothered. Neither of them was paying the slightest bit of attention to me. Chef Mark was grinning at Vicky and she was grinning back.
"Oh, uh," Vicky said, remembering her manners at last. "Mark, this is my friend Merry Wilkinson."
He turned to me. His smile was dazzling. "So pleased to meet you, Merry. Are you a cook also?"
"I boil a mean pot of water," I said.
"I've got to get back to the kitchen," Mark said. "Nice meeting you, Merry. I hope you recognize the baguette, Vicky."
"Sure do," she said.
"Have a nice meal," he said. "Don't forget to save room for dessert. The gingerbread cake is fabulous." He hurried away, back to the mysterious depths of a top-ranked restaurant kitchen.
I broke off a hunk of baguette and popped it into my mouth. Crunchy on the outside, soft and dense within. Delicious. "Yours?"
"Yup. As is the gingerbread cake."
"Does he get all his desserts from you?"
"Just the bread, mostly. As my gingerbread cake is a Rudolph specialty, he buys that from me, too."
I took a sip of wine. "Nice-looking guy."
"Is he?" she said, gulping down half a glass of her own. "I hadn't noticed."
I glanced around the dining room. It was full, and I knew Vicky only got a reservation because they had a cancellation for a table for two. Logs burned in the large, open fireplace against one wall. Next to it a tall, fat, real Douglas fir was weighted down with decorations and trimmed with delicate white lights. The tables were covered in starched white linen tablecloths, and crystal and silver glimmered in the gentle light cast by a single votive candle. The glass candleholders were trimmed with a piece of freshly cut holly. The room was full of light and laughter, warmth and wonderful scents, and that special something that was part of the season: Christmas magic. I settled back with a contented sigh.
"How's business?" Vicky asked.
"Mad. Absolutely mad. As they say in show business, any publicity is good publicity. All the attention the town received when that journalist was killed has helped draw in the crowds. Once they found the killer and Rudolph's reputation was cleared, anyway. I'm worried about running out of some of my stock before Christmas."
"That's a good worry," Vicky said. "Better than being stuck with stuff you can't move."
We wiped the charcuterie plate clean. When the waitress took away the empty platter she asked if we wanted another bottle. Vicky and I exchanged a questioning look before saying, "Sure!" at the same time. The lamb shanks arrived and they were delicious, served with delicate potatoes and grilled vegetables. We lingered over our meal for a long time, simply enjoying each other's company and the welcome chance to relax.
I've had more of Vicky's gingerbread cake than I can possibly remember, but I never get enough of it. I ordered that for dessert, and Vicky had the candy cane cheesecake. The gingerbread was served under a mountain of freshly whipped cream, and the cheesecake dotted with bits of crushed candy.
"My compliments to the chef," Vicky said as we rummaged for our credit cards.
The waitress was about fifty years old, but she giggled and blushed like a teenager talking about the captain of the football team. "Isn't he wonderful? We're so lucky to have him."
Vicky pulled out her phone and called for a cab. Neither of us was in any state to drive.
Then, stuffed to the gills and more than a bit tipsy, my best friend and I staggered out the restaurant door into the hotel lobby.
The lobby of the Yuletide Inn was also beautifully decorated for the season. The huge tree was hung with an array of antique (or antique-looking) ornaments; wooden soldiers stood to attention in the deep, stone windowsills; red stockings hung over the fireplace; terra-cotta pots overflowed with pink-flowered Christmas cactus and red and white poinsettias. Glass bowls of various sizes full of silver and gold balls sat on the large, round table dominating the center of the room. A charming Christmas village, complete with snow on the roofs and lighted windows in the shops and houses, was arranged on a side table.
"Hey, look who's here," a baritone boomed.
"Hi, Dad. Mom." Even though I'd seen them only yesterday, we exchanged enthusiastic hugs and kisses. My parents greeted Vicky the same way, and we shook hands with the couple with my parents. Jack and Grace Olsen, owners of the Yuletide Inn.
"Are you going through for dinner?" I asked. "It's late for you, isn't it, Dad?"
"We've just finished," he said, rubbing his round belly with a satisfied smile.
"I didn't see you in the dining room."
"We had a private room," Mom said. "It pays to know the boss." The two couples were close friends.
"Dinner was exceptional," Vicky said, patting her own firm, flat stomach. "The new chef is simply fabulous."
Grace and Jack beamed. "We're hearing nothing but good reports," Jack said. "And let me tell you, that's a relief, after the last guy." The side of one lip twisted up in disapproval. Jack was, for his age, a good-looking man with a strong, square jaw and dancing blue eyes.
"We're booked solid until New Year's Day," Grace added. "Some people have made next year's reservations already."
"Glad to hear it," Dad said. "What's good for the Yuletide is . . ."
"Good for Rudolph," we chorused.
Dad said, "Ho, ho, ho." My dad was born on December 25th and named Noel. He has plump red cheeks, a round stomach, a long white beard, a mass of curly white hair, and bushy white eyebrows. Even when he's not wearing the costume of red suit, black belt and boots, and pom-pom-tipped hat, Noel Wilkinson looks exactly like a storybook Santa Claus. And Santa he is, in our town, at least. Tonight he was dressed in brown corduroy slacks (circa 1980) and a red sweater sporting a reindeer with sprigs of holly entwined in his antlers and a big, red woolen pom-pom for his nose. I noticed people walking through the lobby giving him sideways glances, and their faces lighting up in smiles. It was late for small children to be around, but if they were, Dad would always give them a wink and a hearty, "Ho, ho, ho."
Vicky and I laughed and leaned against each other.
Always the more serious of the pair, my mother gave me a stern look. "You are not driving, I hope."
"We've called a cab, Aline," Vicky said.
"We can give you a lift," Dad said. "We're leaving now."
"Thanks, Dad, but the cab'll be here in a minute," I said. "We'll wait outside. Good night."
We headed for the front doors as Jack Olsen said, "Did I ever tell you about the time I was in the navy, and Santa Claus visited the ship? We were in the Philippines, and he was the sorriest excuse . . ."
He broke off with a strangled cry. I heard a loud thump followed by a resounding crash. Grace screamed, my mom gasped, and Dad yelled, "Jack!"
I whirled around to see Jack lying on the floor. He'd knocked over the side table as he fell, and the lighted Christmas village display hit the ground. Many of the tiny buildings were shattered, and the town had been thrown into darkness when the electrical cord had been jerked out of the wall. Jack clutched his chest. His eyes were round and white, full of pain and fear. Grace dropped to her knees beside him. "He's having another heart attack. Jack, Jack, are you okay?"
"Call 911," I shouted to the woman at the reception desk, but she already had the phone in her hand.
My dad dropped to the floor beside his friend. Jack was dressed in a gray suit, white shirt, and striped tie. Dad ripped the tie open and undid the top two buttons. "Aline," he said, "give me your coat."
Without a word, Mom slipped her cape off. It was a gorgeous thing of black wool with an emerald silk lining and matching frog fastenings. Dad draped it over Jack. "Let's try to keep him warm. Hold on there, buddy-help's on the way."
Grace gripped her husband's hand and sobbed silently.
"They want to know if he's breathing," the receptionist called.
A woman came out of the restaurant at a trot. "I'm a doctor. Let me help." She crouched over Jack, her evening skirt spreading around her in a puddle of scarlet satin. "Get him sitting up."
Fortunately the Rudolph Hospital is located on the same side of town as the inn, and in minutes we heard the welcome sound of an approaching siren. I hurried outside to direct the EMTs to the patient.
A taxi followed in the ambulance's wake. "Nothing we can do," Vicky said. "We might as well go home."
"I'll be right back." I ran into the lobby. "Our cab's here. Do you want to come with us, Mom?"
She leaned into me, and I gave her a hug. Her body was trembling. "I'll stay with Grace."
"Call me as soon as you hear anything."
I jumped into the cab beside Vicky. "Do you think Jack's going to be okay?" she asked me.
"I don't know. Did you hear Grace say another heart attack? That can't be good."
"My brother died of a heart attack," the cabbie said, "and my father before him. Let me tell you . . ."
Vicky and I said not another word all the way home.
Even in the busy holiday season, midweek mornings are always slow in my shop. Which is a good thing, as it gives me a chance to reorganize the displays and restock the shelves. It was coming up on lunchtime and I was straightening the window displays when I spotted Mom heading my way.
My mom is always easy to spot. She's an opera singer, and at the height of her career she'd been nothing less than a diva at the Metropolitan Opera. She retired to Rudolph, my dad's hometown, to run a vocal school, but she still considered the limelight to be her natural environment. Today she wore an ankle-length black wool coat with giant red buttons, a black hat with red trim that managed to be both warm and elegant, red leather gloves, and red boots. My dad had called me last night when I was cuddling up with my bed partner-a Saint Bernard puppy named Matterhorn-to say Jack was being prepped for surgery and he and Mom would stay with Grace.
Mom breezed into the shop, not looking at all like a woman who must have been up most of the night. "Good morning, dear."
"Hi, Mom. Any news about Jack?"
"The surgery went well, and he's now, as they say, resting comfortably."
"That's good to hear. How's Grace?"
"Worried sick, poor thing. I'm going to the inn now, to pick her up and take her to the hospital."
"She said Jack was having another heart attack?"
"He had a minor one about a year ago. This one, last night, was not minor. He had a triple bypass."
"That'll mean a long recovery time," I said. "Is the hotel going to be okay without him running things?"
"I don't know, dear. Jack was very much involved in the day-to-day operation of the place. He's the manager, as well as the owner. Grace has told me many times that the hotel's getting to be too much for him. The constant stress of demanding guests, the endless hours involved in running a hotel, the worry."
"Worry? Is the inn not doing okay?"
"I believe it's doing very well," she said, "but when one owns one's own business there's no getting away from it."
"That's certainly true," I said, "as I've found out." I've owned Mrs. Claus's Treasures for only a couple of months, so this was my first holiday season. I specialized in locally sourced artisan crafts, but I occasionally bought pieces from farther away if they appealed to me. I trust my taste and buy only what I love and what I think others will love. I select everything I sell with great care and arrange it as I want. I love having this store. I love being my own boss and doing everything my way. It's a big responsibility, but I'm hugely proud of it. It's also a heck of a lot of work. "How's Grace going to manage? It would be hard enough anytime, but we're heading into the busiest weeks of the year."
Copyright © 2016 by Vicki Delany. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.