In Rudolph, New York, we love Christmas so much, we celebrate it twice a year.
Christmas in July. A time to be silly, enjoy our brief hot summer, have some fun. And attract tourists to our town, of course.
I was in the back room of my shop, Mrs. Claus's Treasures, surrounded by boxes, studying my costume. My Mrs. Claus getup consisted of an ankle-length wool skirt, long-sleeved checked blouse worn under a knitted sweater-vest bearing a decorated Christmas tree design, plain glass spectacles, and a cap with gray curls attached. The forecast for the weekend was for temperatures reaching into the high eighties, and it would be even hotter, taking humidity into account.
Dressed in that outfit, standing in the sun, I might well melt.
I briefly considered going for a seductive Mrs. Claus look, but decided against that for two reasons. I don't do seductive, and Santa is played by none other than my own father.
"Merry!" Jackie, the shop assistant, called. "Someone here to see you."
"Back to work we go," I said to Matterhorn, my ten-month-old Saint Bernard.
I put the costume back on its hanger, left the storage room, and shooed Mattie into my office. He gave me a mournful, pleading look, as if to say, No! Not the office! Anything but the office, before doing as he was told. "You are such a ham," I said, heading to the front of the shop. I'd have to decide soon what I was going to wear. Today was Thursday and the big weekend was coming up fast.
I expected the caller would be a salesperson waiting to introduce me to their line of goods that I couldn't possibly live without. But it wasn't.
I stopped dead in the curtained doorway separating the private areas at the rear of the building from the salesrooms. A man stood at the counter with his back to me. Jackie was behind the cash register, smiling broadly at him, head cocked to one side, her light laugh filling the air.
He didn't have to turn around. I knew that stance, the broad shoulders, the slim hips, the long legs, the short dark hair. I started to back away, to run through the storage room, out the back door into the alley, and keep on running, but before I could move Jackie said, "There she is," and he turned. I also knew the high cheekbones, the straight white teeth, the eyes so dark they were almost black, the long lashes, the trace of black stubble on the strong jaw. Jackie widened her eyes, fanned her face, and her mouth formed the word "Wow!"
"Hello, Merry," he said.
"Mmmm." I cleared my throat, feeling a wave of heat as color rushed into my face. "Max."
Even Jackie could sense the tension in the air, and she dropped her comic expression to stare at us. Unfortunately, at this moment the shop was empty of customers. There was nothing to distract Jackie's attention or provide me with something I could pretend was in desperate need of my services.
He kept his eyes, those gorgeous black eyes under lashes so long and thick they could be used to string tennis rackets, fixed on my face. "Your shop's very nice, Merry. You have lots of great things. You must be doing well."
"Well enough." I struggled to find my voice. "Can I help you find something, Max?"
"Actually, Merry, you can. I've lost something very precious, and I've come here to get it back."
"I'd be happy to do what I can. What are you looking for?"
"The love of my life," he said.
Jackie gasped. I threw her a look over Max's shoulder. Her eyes threatened to pop right out of her head. She pointed to Max, did the fanning-the-face thing again, and then she pointed at me and mouthed "Wow!" again.
I tried to ignore her. "Max, why are you here?"
"I wanted to see you again, Merry. To talk. But"-he turned toward Jackie-"as charming as your helper here is, I'd like to go someplace private."
I had a death grip on the curtain. "My office is . . ."
"Not in your office. How about we have dinner tonight? The place across the street looks okay. I'll make a reservation for seven. Shall I pick you up or meet you there?"
"I'll meet you. I mean . . . I don't want to have dinner with you, Max."
"Sure you do," he said. "Seven o'clock it is."
The chimes over the door sounded as the door opened and a woman came in. "There you are. Why aren't you answering your phone?"
Max gave me another long look before turning to face the newcomer. "I'm on a break."
"No time for breaks. Isn't that what you always say, Max? Breaks are for losers." She looked past him for the first time. Her eyes were about to flick over me, but then she did a double take. "Merry, is that you?"
"Willow?" I said. "Good heavens, Willow, what are you doing here?"
She crossed the room, arms outstretched. Max stepped aside, and Willow Rasmon enveloped me in a light hug accompanied by a kiss on the cheek that was more of a peck at the air. At five foot eleven and wearing her customary four-inch stilettos, Willow had to just about fold herself in half to reach me. "Max Folger, you are a naughty boy." She waved a bloodred nail at the end of a long finger. "Getting us to come here under a false pretext so you could see Merry."
"Nothing false about it," he said. "It's still a great story."
"Will one of you tell me what's going on?" I said.
"It was all Max's idea," Willow said, "and for once I have to admit it's a good one. We're going to do a feature on Christmas in July for the new travel section of the magazine. And what better place to celebrate Christmas than America's top year-round Christmas destination."
Jackie squealed. "You're from Jennifer's Lifestyle! Oh my gosh. I love that magazine. My mom has a subscription, and she gives me her copy every month when she's finished with it."
"How nice," Willow drawled.
Jackie ran around the counter and almost jumped up and down in front of Willow. "I can help you. I've lived here all my life. I know everyone!"
Willow peered down her long nose. "Goodness, I wouldn't have recognized you for a small-town girl."
Jackie beamed. I threw Willow a glare. Now I remembered: beneath the air-kissy faade Willow was nothing but a ruthlessly ambitious, stuck-up Manhattan snob.
Max laughed, and I glared at him, too.
Willow's oversized Michael Kors bag trilled, and she dug into a side pocket for her phone. At least she'd given up wearing one of those ridiculous earpieces that made people look as though they were about to be assimilated into the Borg Collective. "We're at Mrs. Claus's Treasures. Across the street from the library." She hung up and put the phone away.
"Who was that?" I asked.
"Our photographer," Willow said. "He's been scouting out vantage points around town."
Jackie squealed again. I felt the air move as she ran past us heading for the back rooms.
"Is someone going to tell me what's going on?" I said. "Or do I have to guess."
"Guess away, Merry," Max said. "It shouldn't be too hard."
The door opened once again and a man came in. He wore a beige, multi-pocketed vest of the sort last seen in the pages of National Geographic, carried a large bag, and had a long-lensed black Nikon slung over his shoulder. "This is going to be rich," he said. "I don't know what to shoot first."
"Jason Kerr, meet Merry Wilkinson," Willow said. "I don't think Jason did any work for us in your day, Merry."
He grinned at me. "I've heard a lot about you, when we were getting ready for this trip. You left big shoes to fill when you quit."
I couldn't help sneaking a peek at Max. Jason, I'm sure, meant when I left my job. Max would have been thinking of something else.
"Welcome to Mrs. Claus's Treasures." The curtain was swept aside, and Jackie stood there, framed in the entrance. She'd been gone for only about one minute, but she'd undone the top two buttons on her blouse, twisted the shirttails into a knot so it rode up to give us a peek at her taut belly, tightened the belt on her short denim skirt, applied a heavy layer of rose blush, and pulled her hair out of its clip so it fell in waves around her shoulders. She struck a pose, hip cocked, one shoulder forward, head tilted.
Max grinned at her. Willow's lip turned up in a sneer and she rolled her eyes. Jason said, "Do you work here?"
"Here? Yes, I'm Jackie O'Reilly. Head of customer service." That title was new to me. Jackie was my only full-time employee. "If you're looking for something special, I'd be delighted to assist you." She turned her smile on Max. "Both of you."
"I'm sure," Willow said.
The chimes sounded and a customer, a real live customer, came into the shop.
"If you don't mind," I said, "I have a business to run. Jackie. Jackie!"
I jerked my head toward the customer, a middle-aged woman dressed in comfortable, but not inexpensive, clothes.
Jackie pouted prettily. But she knew where her paycheck came from and went to assist the new arrival.
"Since you left, Merry," Max said, "we've started a new regular feature in the magazine called Discover America. It's all about road trips and vacations the reader can find right in their backyard. We're here to do Christmas in July in Rudolph."
As much as I wasn't happy to see Max in my shop, or in Rudolph, I have to admit I was pleased at the idea. We were a tourist town. If there's one thing tourism needs, it's publicity. Good publicity, that is, not the sort we had in the days leading up to last Christmas, which threatened to turn Rudolph into the Ghost of Christmas Towns Past. "Sounds like a great idea."
"It was Max's suggestion," Willow said. "I wonder what made him think of it."
"Don't you have locations to scout, Willow?" Max said.
"I suppose I do. There's a darling little bakery up the street with a display of gingerbread cookies in the window. So charming."
"Victoria's Bake Shoppe," I said. "Their gingerbread is a Rudolph institution."
"I'm thinking we might be able to expand into a piece for the food section. I'll try and pry some of the recipes out of them for our test kitchen." Willow pulled a small notebook out of her bag. It was a real paper notebook, too, with a pen attached. Willow was always jotting down ideas. It was part of what made her a successful style editor.
"Don't get ahead of yourself," Max said. "We're not here for food."
"I thought," Willow said, "we were here to do a good story. Heaven knows, the magazine needs something. Anything to get circulation back up."
"Not food," Max said. "That's Adrienne's domain."
"If we run pictures of the bakery window," Willow snapped, "we'll get letters asking for the recipes."
"Then Adrienne can decide if she wants to feature some."
"Gee, you guys are sure making me wish I was back at the magazine," I said. "Not. Find someplace else to do your storyboarding, will you? I have a business to run."
Willow pointedly studied the room. Jackie was showing earrings to the sole customer. As can be guessed by the name of my shop, I sell Christmas things. The earrings in question were gold, formed into the traditional triangle shape representing a Christmas tree, with red and green glass draped from the frame to represent the lights and decorations. "I can see how busy you are," Willow said.
"We'll be busy on the weekend." I rushed to defend my business. In defending Mrs. Claus's Treasures, I was also defending the decision that had me leaving my life and job in Manhattan and returning to my hometown.
"Of course you will, sweetie," Willow said. "That's why we're here."
"The focus of the section will be on Saturday's activities," Max said. "Family-friendly stuff. Right now we're checking things out, looking for a bit of color."
Jason lifted his camera and took a picture of Jackie. Caught unaware, she squeaked and struck a pose. The customer pretended not to notice the camera as she patted her hair, thrust out her chin, and sucked in her stomach.
"You can get a full schedule of the day at the town office," I said. "Santa will be arriving by boat and setting his chair up on the beach to meet children of all ages. We'll have other activities going on throughout the day."
"Say cheese," Jason said, swinging the camera in my direction.
Instinctively, I smiled. Then I remembered myself. "Don't do that. I don't want to be in your magazine."
"Sure you do," Willow said. "Everyone does. I'm going to the bakery now. Jason, come with me. So nice to see you, Merry. I'm sure we'll have lots of time to chat before I leave."
"I'm heading back to the hotel," Max said. "I have calls to make. Willow, stop in at that restaurant across the street and make me a reservation for two for seven o'clock." He kept his eyes fixed on me. I shifted.
"I'm not your secretary," Willow snapped.
"You are if I say you are," he said.
She huffed, but didn't reply, and she and Jason left. "Catch you later," Jackie called after them. "I'll be here all weekend, hard at work. Although, I don't have to be here all the time if you need someone to show you around."
Jason gave her a wave, but Willow didn't so much as slow down.
"I'll take these," the customer said, holding the earrings. "Miss, I said, I'll take these."
"Sorry." Jackie tore her eyes away from the window. She went behind the counter to ring up the sale, wrap the jewelry in tissue, and put the packet into a paper bag bearing the Mrs. Claus's Treasures logo.
"See you at seven, Merry," Max said to me.
"I don't . . ."
"It'll be fun to catch up, won't it?" He gave me the grin that once upon a time would have been guaranteed to melt my feeble heart.
The bells tinkled as the happy shopper left.
Max crossed the shop floor. "Those earrings you just sold," he said to Jackie, "or ones like them, would be perfect for our article. I plan to do a sidebar on shopping. Maybe you could model them for us."
Copyright © 2017 by Vicki Delany. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.