“Alright, girls, gather round we have some important things to impart to you.”
Corey looked up from the report he had been writing for the traffic accident he’d been called to earlier. Ryan Cartwright, the chief of police, stood in the center of the bullpen. In one hand, he held a stack of papers and in the other, a bowl.
The groans coming from his fellow officers was a sound he’d heard every year at this time. Hell, it was something every government job heard in Holiday this time of year. It was time to draw names to see who would participate in the annual seasonal play.
In the seven years Corey had been on the force, his name hadn’t been drawn once. He knew the odds of him not being chosen this year weren’t good. Unlike the other officers though, he wasn’t bothered by the thought of being in the play. He was hoping he was chosen.
“You know the drill. Write down your name and then put it in the bowl.” Ryan walked around the pen handing everyone a piece of paper and waiting while they wrote down his or her name and put it in the bowl. After everyone had put their names in the bowl he returned to the center of the room.
“Hey, Chief, why didn’t you put your name in?”
Corey looked over at Cassi. She’d joined the department at the same time as him, and was the only female officer.
“Officer Daniels, I could put my name in and then not be there for the birth of my baby, resulting in me being in the doghouse with my wife, and my brother-in-law and his roommate coming sooner than you want them to arrive… or I cannot put my name in.”
Corey stifled his laughter at the look of panic on Cassi’s face. For some reason Cassi hated one of their boss’ best friends, a fact that had caused a lot of ribbing to happen in the station.
“Drumroll please,” Ryan said. He shook the bowl of names while all the officers drummed on their desks. With a flourish he pulled a name. “And our lucky sacrifice is…. Officer Corey Evans.”
Corey pretended to groan and hide his face. The truth was they all pretended to hate participating, when in reality they all looked forward to it. It gave them the opportunity to interact with the locals in a non-professional atmosphere and fostered a relationship with them, making the townspeople more apt to trust them.
He stood and bowed to the catcalls and whistles of his co-workers.
Two hours later he opened the door to the Green Mountain Pub and was greeted with the loud noise and smells that had become synonymous with the pub in the last year.
For as long as he could remember the pub had been a rundown bar, one the town refused to get rid of because it was one of the original businesses and buildings of the town.
A year ago, it had been taken over by a tattooed biker named Durf. He’d shown up one day on his Harley, taped a sign to the door that read “Closed for Renovations.” Three months later, it had re-opened and had become a hot spot in the small town.
Corey spotted his friends’ table, the hair that looked like the owner had stuck his finger in a light socket, his homing beacon. No one else in town had hair like Austen’s. As Holiday was not just a tourist destination, but also a college town, that was saying something.
He slid into the open spot at the table, next to his best friend Kevin. All three of the men at the table were his best friends, and had been ever since he was twelve.
“So?” He looked across the table at Brad.
Brad eyed him back and took a long swallow of his beer.
Austen and Kevin laughed and Kevin slapped him on the back. “So you going to finally make your move?”
Corey contemplated his answer. Ever since she’d come back to town he’d been fantasizing about her. The first time he’d seen her Marilyn Monroe shape he’d been sure there was drool on his face. Every time he’d tried to approach her, however, her face would blanche, so he would nod and walk past her.
“Yeah, I am. You know my mom’s the chairperson of The Winter Festival?”
They all nodded.
“So, she let drop the other night what the play is and who’s is in charge of it.”
“You’re going to take advantage of this knowledge, aren’t you?” Austen asked.
Corey took a long drink of his beer before answering.
“Yes, I am.”
He should feel guilty for taking advantage of this information, but he didn’t. This was too important.
Averie took a deep breath and opened the door to the mayor’s office. She’d been praying to every deity she could think of that her name wouldn’t be drawn out of the bowl. She didn’t want to be the school district’s representative in the however many annual Holiday Christmas production.
When she was a little girl she had loved the annual play. When she was a teenager she had tolerated it. Now that she was an adult she dreaded it.
Averie paused in the doorway and took in the various people in the room. She knew all of them, well, all but one, and she ignored him.
“Hi, everyone. Sorry I’m late. What did I miss?”
She took her seat on the opposite side of the room from the man who made her squirm every time he looked at her. He affected her like no one ever had, and every time she saw him her heart rap-tap-tapped. Not that she was interested in him, or any man for that matter.
Nope, no men. Not for her.
She’d sworn off the entire species almost a year ago and hadn’t looked back, except for those moments when she could swear he was looking at her. Then her entire body would tingle with awareness.
“You’re just in time to find out the name of the play we will be performing this year…”
Averie smiled at the barely-contained excitement she could hear in the older woman’s voice. Mrs. Bullock was her grandma’s best friend and had been in charge of the play for as long as anyone in town could remember.
Averie caught her excitement and wrapped it around her like a warm coat on a cold winter day. As much as she didn’t want to be in the play, she couldn’t ignore the excitement in the air. She accepted the manila envelope with her copy of the script and waited like everyone else to be told when they could open it.
“And open them.” Mrs. Bullock laughed as everyone pretended they were opening the envelopes at an award show.
Averie pulled out her script and that warm coat was ripped away from her body, leaving her standing in summer-weight clothing with freezing temperatures.
The Gift of the Maji.
She normally loved this story. But not this year.
Not when the only two people under the age of fifty working on the play were her and Officer Sexy.
She glanced around the room as the others talked about the play and who would do what. She caught the looks being passed between Mrs. Bullock and the mayor. If he mentioned pairing her up with the “I’m too sexy for my own good” cop, there would be words. And as the mayor hadn’t won an argument with her in twenty years, she was fairly confident she wouldn’t be starring opposite the officer in a Christmas love story.
Mrs. Bullock clapped her hands for everyone’s attention.
“Ok then, we have a little more than three weeks to get this show ready. As it’s a small cast we thought it would be nice if, Averie, you played the female lead, and Corey, you the male lead.”
Averie kept her eyes glued to the script in her lap. She didn’t want to see his reaction to playing opposite her.
The timbre in his voice sounded throughout her system, like hitting a note on the piano. He was the hammer and she the wire. How was this possible? The last time she’d seen him he was eighteen and she was fifteen, and only at a distance. Yet he affected her like no one ever had before.
“Good then. Averie my dear, exchange phone numbers with Corey and set up a time to go over the script. We’ll have our first practice in three days.”
Averie stayed in her seat as the room emptied, except for her, the mayor, and the man who threatened her vow of no men. She waited for him to approach her. If she attempted to stand and walk, she was afraid her legs would crumble beneath her and she would look weak and pathetic — the very last thing she wanted to be in front of him.
“Hi, I guess we should exchange numbers.”
Oh my, a shiver went through her body, and she clasped her phone so hard she was surprised it didn’t break.
“Sure.” She rattled off her number and watched as he input it into his phone. Open your mouth and say something, Averie, she thought. She opened her mouth, but shut it without uttering a single word. She had no idea what to say.
Her phone buzzed in her hand. She glanced at the screen and saw an unknown number.
“I texted you so you could have my number as well.”
She resisted slapping her forehead in a duh moment.
“So when do you want to get together?”
He wanted her to think right now? That wasn’t going to happen.
“I’m not sure what my schedule is like right now. Can I text you?” There, she didn’t sound like an idiot.
“That’s fine. If I don’t answer leave me a message at the station.”
Call the police station. Was he insane? There was no way she was calling there and leaving a message.
“If you don’t answer, I’ll just leave a message on your voice mail.”
“That works. I have to get to work so I’ll talk to you later.”
He said something to the mayor she didn’t catch, before he left the office. When only she and the mayor remained, she stood and turned to face him. She put on her sit-down-and-listen-to-me teacher face she’d been told intimidated not just her second graders, but their parents as well.
“You better be careful with that face you’re making, wouldn’t want it to become permanent.”
“You,” she growled. “You are the worst big brother in the universe, do you know that?” She dumped her stuff on the chair she’d just vacated, and began to pace the length of the office.
The mayor — a.k.a her pesky older brother — leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk.
“No, I’m not. I’m the best big brother in the universe.”
“Really? Because you couldn’t tell by me. You threw me under the bus with Mrs. Bullock.”
“You supported her making me the lead.”
His brow creased in confusion.
“How is that throwing you under the bus?”
She stopped her pacing in front of his desk, clenched her fists, tilted her head back to look at the ceiling and yelled, “Because I don’t want to be in the damn play!”
Oh wow, that felt good, she thought.
“Since when do you not want to participate in the holiday play? You’ve always been a part of it.” Averie could hear the confusion in Zach’s voice. She knew he didn’t understand why she didn’t want to be a part of it. But she had her reasons.
“Yeah, I did when I was ten.” There was no keeping the sarcasm out of her voice, not that she wanted to. “I can think of several things I’d rather be doing than being in this play.”
“Like what? Moping around your townhouse? Not interacting with anyone?”
Averie ignored Zach. She’d never told anyone she hated the fact her family’s Christmases were politically motivated. Maybe that was harsh. They weren’t politically motivated, but her mother had been one of those “appearances matter” kind of people. She hated it.
Not that she could tell her family that. If she even mentioned hating all the crap her mother made them do during the holidays she would get a lecture on how her family was one of the oldest families in town, and it was their civic duty to participate.
They could take their civic duty and shove it up their civic asses.
“I’m not moping in my townhouse. I go out with my friends. I’m just not dating.”
She didn’t look at him as she gathered up her things and left.
Averie opened the door to her townhouse and was greeted by the smell of cinnamon, sugar, peppermint and butter. She loved the smell of Christmas cookies fresh from the oven. She could hear the murmur of voices coming from the kitchen. Damn and blast, she’d forgotten about helping Paula make cookies for the fireman and cops in town. It was an activity she had been looking forward to, as it gave her a chance to be with women who knew and understood her, and didn’t want her to be something she wasn’t.
She dropped her school bag and purse on the table in the entryway, and began the arduous process of taking off all of her winter gear. If the Holiday gossip line was still in effect, Paula would already know Averie was the lead in the play, and Paula would want to talk about Officer Sexy.
“Quit stalling, Ave, we know you’re home,” Paula called from the kitchen.
That was the problem with living with women who’ve known you your entire life. They knew all your secrets and tactics. There was no avoiding them.
She followed the sounds and smells through the house, picking out the various voices. Her roommates and best friends, Paula, Charlie and Lizzie. Entering the kitchen she met the cookie brigade. As she had no skills in the kitchen, she was the official froster. They had started making Christmas cookies for people back in junior high. Now it was a Holiday tradition.
But this was one she enjoyed because it was done in secret. No one knew who the cookie brigade was and if they did, they didn’t tell.
“So…” Charlie drawled, “How was Officer Sexy?”
Averie considered all the ways she could answer the question without giving away she had hardly spoken to him other than to exchange numbers. They would be so disappointed.
She figured one word answers would be best for now.
“I think we all agree he’s fine. What we want to know is how is he?”
“Dish, Sister, or no cookies for you.”
Paula wielded her spatula like a symphony conductor.
Averie sat on one of the kitchen bar stools, and slumped down, like all of the air in her body had been sucked out.
“I choked,” she admitted, propping her head in her hand on the counter.
“Ah, sweetie, what happened?” Charlie pushed a fresh mug of hot chocolate in front of her.
“Mrs. Bullock passed out the plays and announced we were to be the leads.”
Paula handed her a Rudolph cookie.
“It’s going to be okay.”
“No, it’s not. He’s going to think I got the part because my brother is the mayor.”
Averie didn’t have to look at them to know they were exchanging looks.
“How do you know he isn’t thinking you think he got the part because his mom is the chairperson of the Winter Festival?”
She hadn’t considered that.
Lizzie wrapped her arms around her from behind.
“Now tell us the real reason you choked.”
Damn and blast.
“Have you looked at the man? He’s gorgeous. What would he want with a woman whose belly jiggles when she runs?”
“Your stomach doesn’t jiggle.” Lizzie protested.
Averie rolled her eyes.
“Yes it does. It jiggles like one of those Jell-O Jigglers when I run.”
She avoided looking at them, hoping if she did she wouldn’t laugh at the image of running Jell-O Jigglers. Charlie was the first to start, and then they were all laughing.
Paula waved her hand in front of her face trying to stop laughing.
“The next time you see him, you just be you and if he doesn’t like you for you, well then his hotness score will go down a few notches.”
Averie met her gaze.
“How many points?”
“Um…maybe three, because hello, he’s movie star hot.”
It was a fact Averie couldn’t disagree with.
“Ok, I promise the next time we’re together I’ll be myself and let things happen.”