Snow flurries were coming in from the west, falling in a thick cascade of angel dust, sprinkling on those dreamers who wished for a White Christmas, the ones who wore rose-coloured glasses and believed that Saint Nick really did exist still.
One of those daydream believers was Kate Shannon. Despite the naysayers around her, the jaded adults who believed Christmas was solely for kids and kids alone, she scoffed at them and tossed her flaming hair over her shoulder and hurried away. Till the day she died, she vowed she would remain a kid at heart, filled with the anticipation of the fat man in the red suit sliding down her chimney. Kate did not believe in letting the world maim her enthusiasm for the holiday joy; she was going to raise a toast by a roaring fire and enjoy every comfort of the season. It was a contradictory admission, because Kate was having the worst year of her life. She had lost the man she loved, her boss at work had demoted her to assistant editor, and nothing seemed to be going right, despite the positive vibes she tried sending to the universe. Even those self-help books her cousin lent her were not “manifesting the dream life” she had been promised.
Looking skyward, she watched the heavy flakes flutter down to her nose, her face and eyelashes, and she giggled like a child, locking her car and hurrying into the quaint bakery with the white board-and-batten siding, and the all-encompassing garland around the huge picture window and the twinkling gold lights and huge red bow.
Her cousin Miranda, 33, owned the Hope Valley Bake Shoppe, and always served up her favourite piping hot dinner rolls and sumptuous desserts, like lemon tarts and pumpkin pie. There was cherry cheesecake and chocolate drizzled croissants, too. Kate wondered why she didn’t weigh as much as an elephant, with her thrice weekly visit to the bakery for a treat or two. But it was her morning 5km run and boot camp classes twice a week that kept her in check. When she hit thirty this past spring, she had got on the scale and gained an extra 15 lbs., and that was definitely not cool. Kate, who was svelte and active her entire life, had never had a weight issue, but she heard the curse of turning 30 was prone to hitting a plateau, and she got right into that class as fast as her agile legs could take her.
“Kate! You’ve got to try these fresh blueberry scones!” Miranda announced from behind the counter.
Kate shivered from the chill she’d caught outside, and wrapped her purple scarf tighter to her dark tweed peacoat.
“Sure, I’d love to.” She flashed her that famous pearly grin, and her hazel eyes lit up with expectancy.
Miranda popped them in the microwave for 40 seconds, grabbing a white porcelain plate, some butter and a knife. She poured her famous gourmet candy cane hot chocolate and topped it with whipped cream and crushed candy cane bits.
“Here you go.” She handed the plate and coffee to Kate. “I’ll join you. I’m closing early tonight.”
Miranda whipped off the red apron that said in huge white letters SANTA’S PET, and grabbed her own plate of scones and coffee. Placing them on the little table with the two chairs in the front lobby of the tiny bake shop, Miranda locked the front door so customers would not come in to bother them. It was just a week before Christmas, and the public had her working round the clock for cakes, pies and other delicacies for the holiday office parties, and quite frankly, Miranda was exhausted from the slave-driving mentality of her patrons. If Christmas was supposed to be a joyous time of year with good cheer and glad tidings, then why did it seem the nasty, demanding people came out full force? Geesh.
She sat in the chair across from Kate, massaging her feet, and exhaled. “There, that’s better. My feet are killing me.”
With her brown hair pulled back in a pony-tail, she looked at Kate with tired blue eyes. Miranda was almost the spitting image of Mona Lisa, with a distinctive nose and striking good looks. People told her all the time, and she would laugh it off in true Miranda fashion, “Oh, come on, we both know I’m way better looking than that broad stuck in a painting.”
She mused over it now, and other humorous antics of the day from assorted customers, with her feet up on a nearby chair.
“You have no idea how insane this place is right now. I wish I had you here with me for extra help. My regular girl just quit, so I’m all alone. It sucks.”
Kate sipped her coffee. “If I wasn’t so busy at the newspaper, I’d lend a hand, trust me.”
“Oh, I know you would.” Miranda smiled. “I just wish…you know…my favourite cousin and all.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Kate shot her a sly grin. “What are you after this time?”
“Mmm-hmm.” She wasn’t buying it.
“I swear,” Miranda vowed, holding up the peace sign.
“You know you’re tired when…you give me the peace sign rather than the Girl Scouts gesture.”
Kate burst into laughter, enjoying her hot drink and the rest of her scone, which was done in seconds.
Miranda eyed her cousin’s empty plate with wide eyes. “Umm…care for seconds?”
“Hell yeah, woman.” Kate offered up her empty plate.
“I’m on it.” Miranda scurried behind the glass case and grabbed four more scones. After the busy day she’d had, all she wanted was to eat, go home, and soak her aching feet in a hot bubble bath. Her claw foot tub in the sprawling century home where she lived with her five cats, was where she spent a third of her life, she swore. The house had been occupied with several roommates for a number of years, but they had all moved on with their lives for various reasons, and Miranda quite honestly was happy to have that big ole space all to herself now. She was an introvert by nature, an artist and baker, and her “alone” time was well utilized.
Kate looked out the big picture window, noting her car was covered in snow by now. It was packing snow, no doubt. She felt the kid in her glow with anticipation. Packing snow meant making a snowman and perhaps a snowball fight with her cousin or any willing opponent. A sly grin decorated her lips, and she finished her hot drink.
The sun had gone down, it was well past five p.m., and Miranda heard a loud rapping on the door. “Geezus,” she said, jolting out of her seat. “Who could be bothering us at this hour? The blasted store is closed.”
“Let me get it,” Kate piped up. “You’ve been standing all day.”
“No, no, just ignore it. Let’s have our coffee and say ‘to hell with the straggler who is knocking.”
Again, the knock came; hammering this time, as if the world was going to end if it went unanswered.
“Bloody customers.” Kate got up, finally opening the door with a scowl. “Were you trying to wake the dead?”
Two gorgeous blue eyes stared back at her, with half- startled shock and a glimmer of amusement at her indignant tone.
“Is that any way to talk to the Fed Ex man? Through sun, snow and sleet….” He quoted the famous company slogan, frowning. The six-foot-tall hunk let himself in, breezing past Kate and approaching Miranda at the little café table. He looked dashing in a three-quarter length black coat, and wore a royal blue dress shirt, a tie and black pants.
Kate shook her head, following him. She’d decided he looked nothing like a delivery man.
“Oh my gosh, Grant….” Miranda blushed. “You’re here for the gingerbread latte.” She got out of her chair, hurrying behind the counter, grabbing a large paper cup, pouring espresso, flavoured syrup and steamed milk. On the top, she added a generous helping of whipped cream and cinnamon sprinkles.
“Here you go, it’s on me today.”
Grant took the hot drink, puzzled. “Huh?”
Miranda waved at him. “Silly man, you’re addicted to those things. It’s on the house.”
“Are you sure?”
“Serious as a heart attack.”
Grant smiled. “Thanks, Miranda. Just for that, I’ll take three of the cherry cheese Danish.”
Miranda grabbed a small brown bag, reaching for the pastries in the display case, and caught the quizzical expression of her cousin. “Oh, Kate…this is Grant Michaels, the regional manager of Fed Ex. He’s our most loyal customer.”
Turning red, Kate held out a hand to shake, but she instead tripped on the long red rug that was in front of the cash, knocking Grant’s latte out of his hand and spilling the scalding liquid on them both.
Kate shrieked, feeling the hot coffee burn like fiery coals on her wrist.
“Geezus, woman, what the hell is your problem?” Frantically, Grant tried wiping the leakage with his leather gloves, but there was a lot of it, and it was soaking through his winter coat.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Let me grab a towel from the back.” Scurrying away, Miranda went to get towels, but she stifled a grin as she ran to the room in the back, where she had inventory, a fridge and freezer, powder room and linen closet. Her ever-klutzy cousin Kate was making a smashing first impression indeed. She’d secretly wanted these two to meet for the past while, but obviously Kate was making a “smashing” entrance.
Miranda returned, with an ice pack for Kate’s arm and two towels to clean them both up.
“Thank you, Miranda.” Grant received the towel, doing his best to soak up the latte that had dripped everywhere, including on his pants. He was quite pissed, and Kate’s rude tone had put him in a bad mood.
“I’ll pour you a fresh latte.” Miranda went to get it.
Sulking at the table in the corner, Kate scowled, holding the ice pack on her wrist. Stupid men and their cocky ways, she murmured under her breath. The man could have been a little more understanding, considering she tripped on that goddamn slippery rug and could have easily broken her neck, or worse.
She eyed him from where she sat, sizing him up. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and had strong hands and a solid body. His hair was peppered with grey, but he only looked about early-forties, and his face was round and Scottish-looking, a rather fine-looking man despite the mean vibe he’d sent Kate.
But I’m not going to admire his looks or bow down to him, she reasoned. Men just don’t thrill me anymore, and the last one did a number on my heart.
She sipped her drink, fuming over men and other mishaps. It had been a long year, and she was glad it was coming to a close. Kate worked for the Hope Valley Express, the local newspaper in town, where she was the assistant editor/ reporter and had her own weekly opinion column. To make ends meet, she also did a spot on the radio every Saturday night, covering an oldies show called the Beach Party, which had phone-in requests and prizes.
Miranda apologized for the spilled latte, and Grant smiled. "Not your fault, Miranda. Have a good evening." He raised the cup as if toasting her. "I'll see you later."
He tossed a serious glance at Kate, who was basically in the corner, wanting to crawl into a hole and die. Oh, the mortification of scalding a stranger. At least he got the "good" end of the mishap; she was the one with the burn mark, ice pack and damaged pride.
Please, God, don't let this mistake jinx me for the worse; I have Christmas parcels arriving soon from FED EX, and I don't need this bad karma to ruin my holiday.
When Grant was gone out the door, Miranda locked it behind him. Heaving a sigh, she joined her cousin at the table with two refills of candy cane hot chocolate.
A long pause between them...and then...
"Well, you could have at least apologized to him."
Staring back at her, shocked, Kate bit her lip. "Are you kidding me right now? That man was rude and condescending to me. I tried to say I was sorry..."
"He's our best customer, Kate, so try to be a little nicer to him next time." Raising the cup to her lips, Miranda savoured the warm liquid. That hot bath was looking good right now....ever so good.
"I'll try." Kate finished her drink and got up.
"Where are you going?"
"Home. There's dinner to put on and the mail is probably piling up in the box."
"How is your arm? Did it burn badly?"
"I think it's my pride that's damaged more." Kate put on her sparkly grey newsboy and matching gloves.
"Come to my place tonight. We'll crank the Christmas carols, make some vegetarian stew, and wallow in our singleness."
Kate thought that sounded perfect.
"Okay, let me go collect my mail, take a shower, and I will be over within 40 minutes."
"Yay! I'm excited." Miranda cleaned up the table with cloth and warm soapy water.
"See you in little while."
"Take the ice pack if you need it."
"How bout I duct tape it on?" Rolling her eyes, and feeling the blistering burn, Kate headed for the door.
"Are you sure you don’t need to go to the hospital? I've heard of burns being quite bad."
"I'll be fine, cousin. I know my first aid. Thank God for that class I took in the summer."
"Okay, fine. See you at the house."
Stepping into the silent, snowy night, Kate felt the snowflakes land on her lashes, and she breathed in the cool, crisp air. Nothing like clean winter air to cleanse the senses and ward off the stress of the day. It had been a hectic day at the newspaper, covering Christmas-related stories and the deadlines before Christmas was fully upon her.
Getting in her car, she turned on the heater, and tried to drive off. But suddenly the car skidded and she pulled to the side of the road. Something was not right. Her car was lagging, not accelerating like it should be.
Kate examined the body of the car and all four tires; thank God she'd been a tomboy growing up and had three brothers who showed her how to change a tire or two, and how to fix a blown radiator. The right front tire was flatter than a pancake.
"Dammit," she yelled, and her voice echoed in the silence of main street Hope Valley. Once five p.m hit, the place was like a ghost town.
Looking up to the heavens, she wondered if there was a Big Guy In The Sky to hear her plea.
"Seriously, God? Can you not cut me some slack for once?"
It had been a lousy past few months, with the man she loved betraying her and running off with the town floozy, and everything else that could possibly represent Murphy's Law had haunted her like a banshee.
Kate kicked the flat tire, cursing to the heavens. She'd have to ride with Miranda and just forget the hot shower. By the time a tow truck came to haul her car off to the closed auto shop, her night would be finished.
Grabbing her shoulder bag and locking her car, she headed back to the bake shoppe.
"You're back!" Miranda thought she'd seen a ghost.
"Yes, you look thrilled."
"What's wrong, hun?'
"Flat tire." Kate's lip trembled, and she looked like she was going to have a meltdown.
Normally, she was tough as a rock, but it was a week before Christmas, and she just wanted some relief from this bad luck. She swore some evil force was swallowing her whole.
"Cousin, do you think I could be cursed?"
Miranda shut off the lights and only left the flood lights on to the front of the store for security purposes. She let out a robust laugh.
"No, cousin, you are not cursed. You have just had a bad year, that's all."
"I'm convinced someone put a hex on me."
Miranda patted her shoulder. "Come, let's hit the road. I need to soak these feet and have a refreshing cocktail. We're trying a new one tonight called Jack Frost."
"Sounds good." Kate forced a smile.
"Hell yah....Frosty the Snowman will be rolling in the fields with envy over this one. The mother of all cocktails."
Kate laughed at her cousin's loud Leo humour, and they greeted the snowy night with a fierce abandon.