A JOYFUL EVE IN CHRISTMAS TOWN
CHRISTMAS TOWN ROMANCE SERIES (BOOK 1)
“Ouch!” Claire Reiser grabbed the banister to keep from falling. She’d already taken a tumble and twisted her left ankle. She didn’t want to twist the right one too. Easing down and onto the step, she gingerly lifted her left foot onto her right knee and surveyed the damage. The heel of her boot was wobbly and in danger of snapping. I just got these boots too! The supple gray leather felt tight, no doubt from the swelling of her ankle. Claire winced as she shifted on the step. “Ooh.” She didn’t want to think about the bruise blooming on her ankle that would probably look like her mother’s prized geraniums by morning. She’d landed pretty hard on that patch of ice. “That’s just what this day needs,” she muttered. “Oh, how I hate, hate, hate, hate winter!”
Claire was the girl who loved summer, the girl who shivered if the ambient temperature dropped below eighty—she was thrilled when she got the job as Assistant Events Coordinator at California’s famous Square Valley Ski Resort, perched in the high Sierras. Her main job would be boosting summer tourism at the resort. She’d visited the resort in mid-July and interviewed for the job in early September when temperatures still welcomed sun-lovers and autumn leaves had just begun to transform into a kaleidoscope of colors.
No one explained that her dream job came complete with a move-in date just before Christmas, higher-than-expected costs for everything because of the busy season, and much, much colder temperatures than she could have imagined for California; below freezing every night since her arrival. “Girl, you are out of your depth. Get your act together or you’re toast.”
Her inner voice instantly replied, Mmm, warm cinnamon toast!
“Yeah, yeah, if I can get back to my apartment,” she grumbled aloud.
An answering whine surprised her. When did my subconscious mind get that loud? “Is someone there?” A quick glance up and down the stairs assured her she was alone. Weird, now I’m hearing things too. She blew out a breath. She really did need to get back to her place and elevate her ankle or she wouldn’t be good for anything, including making toast—cinnamon or otherwise.
Claire held tight to the railing and pulled herself up, gasping at the sharp pain that shot up her left side. Whoever thought second-story apartments are a good idea, anyway? I live in a building designed for cat burglars! Gritting her teeth, she gingerly tested her weight on her ankle. Not as wobbly as I thought. I think I can do this. She decided she could manage the stairs if she leaned heavily on the railing and used her arm strength more than her legs. As she limped upward, she reminded herself she was lucky to get this place. I know the world is full of crazy people, but who knew so many of them would want to come to Square Valley for Christmas? The whole town is rented out to snow bunnies!
She had to admit, however grudgingly, that Bedford Falls, California did have a certain charm. The sharp scent of evergreens permeated the air and the fresh snow made the town look like a Christmas card. She could also see the appeal of visiting during the Holidays—at least for those who enjoy the cold. Walruses and reindeer, maybe? Her next-door neighbor, Kiley Ross—the one person she’d come to know a little since her arrival five days ago—seemed to love the whole Christmas Town nick-name the community had adopted.
“You should have been here at the beginning of December,” Kiley had told her a few days ago as she was helping Claire unpack her dishes. “There’s a festival every weekend of the month. Bedford Falls goes into full-on celebration mode starting December 1, but we pretty much embrace Christmas all year long.”
“I’ve noticed that,” Claire replied with a smile. “It seems strange, but—”
“It’s all coincidence, you know, the Christmas Town thing.” Kiley’s eyes lit up as she told Claire the story. “The town gets its quaint and charming Victorian look from the Gold Rush days. Bedford Falls is named after the Bedford brothers, who settled here after striking it rich.
“And they named the town after themselves? That seems rather…narcissistic. Like George Foreman naming all five of his sons George Foreman.”
“Oh, is he the guy who invented the indoor grill?”
“Uh—no, he didn’t invent it, though it was named after him. Foreman came to fame as a boxer. In fact, he’s a legend—there was a famous rivalry between him and Muhammad Ali. My granddad boxed in college. He’s a huge fan, so I grew up watching old boxing matches on TV.”
“Oh, yes, I remember. Sorry, my head has been buried in algebra equations for the past month.”
“No worries. I get it.” Claire knew her friend had been taking courses at the local community college for a few years in addition to working full-time for the school district. Claire had even helped Kiley study for her final.
“Like Foreman with the grill, the Bedford brothers didn’t actually name the town,” Kiley went on. “They lived on the creek near the falls. Other people who moved into the area started calling it Bedford Falls and the name stuck.”
“Makes sense, but that doesn’t explain the Christmas Town nickname.”
Kiley chuckled. “Well, yes, actually, it does. Because of the town’s actual name—Bedford Falls. Get it?”
“Like in the movie.”
“Uh, what movie?”
Kiley’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding, right?”
Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t roll your… Okay, don’t roll them again. “Kiley, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
That’s when she got the half-hour lecture on an old movie—really old, like black-and-white old—called It’s a Wonderful Life, complete with Kiley’s extremely detailed description of all her favorite scenes and a few bars of “Buffalo gal, won’t ya come out tonight” sung with Kiley’s valley-girl accent and ending with something about the…moon? “Okay, got it. Big Christmas movie.”
“I don’t know how you missed it.”
“Hey, you thought George Foreman invented an indoor grill.”
“True, but It’s a Wonderful Life is an iconic movie. My family watches it every year.”
“My family was never into the old Christmas movie thing—or any old movies. My parents always took me to the movie theater to catch the big movie releases every Christmas. New movies are more our style.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong! I love new movies. But old films are a passion of mine. It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple in my family,” Kiley said. “In fact, I checked an item off my bucket list just last month. My friends, Amanda and Emily, and I went on a fun autumn colors tour in New England and we took a detour at Seneca Falls, New York, on our way back, so I got to attend the annual screening of It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Why a special screening?” Claire enjoyed Christmas as much as anyone, but an annual event to celebrate an old movie?
With a deep sigh that suggested Claire must be impossibly uninformed, Kiley settled in to enlighten her. “The people in Seneca Falls call their town ‘the real Bedford Falls.’ They claim it’s the actual town depicted in the movie, and we know at least some of the scenes were filmed there. “It’s a tradition to screen the movie at the local theater and they also have other events around the screening. It turned out to be a very special trip.” Kiley touched the pretty pin on her sweater. She wore it every day, at least every time Claire saw her. It was silver and in the shape of an angel.
“That’s a pretty pin you have on. I’ve seen it on you before, but forgot to ask you about it.”
Kiley touched it again and smiled. “I got it in a cute gift shop in Seneca Falls. It’s become sort of a symbolic reminder to me about staying true to myself.” Kiley went on to explain to Claire about her trip to Seneca Falls and the impact it had on her.
“You’re telling me attending a screening of that movie changed your life? Like, your whole life?”
“Well, yeah. I guess that’s exactly what happened.”
“Wow. I may have to see that movie sometime.”
“I have it on blue ray. We’ll schedule it.”
Claire bit back a smile. Kiley was quite particular about things but truly adorable. Despite her odd obsession with a dusty old movie, she was becoming a good friend. In addition to helping her unpack, Kiley had clued Claire in on where to find things she needed in town, how to navigate the strange downtown with its sporadic one-way streets, and which men to avoid, as in “watch out for the skiers and the winter visitors. They’ll hit on you, but they don’t stick around.”
Claire thanked Kiley, letting her know she’d worked as an assistant cruise director her first year out of college. “Do you know what kinds of guys hit on you on a cruise ship?” she asked.
Kiley dismissed the comment with a flick of her wrist. “Trust me, there’s no comparison. Men on ski vacations are usually fit, attractive, and blessed with heavy wallets.”
“Ooh, that does sound tempting,” Claire replied with a lift of her eyebrows.
Kiley laughed it off, but she did it with an odd look—half skeptical, half Great Aunt Gertrude looking horrified.
Note to self: Be careful when you joke with Kiley. She may not always appreciate your snarky sense of humor.
Claire had seen little of Kiley after that afternoon as her days had been jam-packed with errands. She did manage to get to the Visitors’ Bureau where she picked up a brochure and a map of the Christmas-All-Year businesses. To her astonishment, the one-stoplight town boasted nine of them. Nine!
A Google search confirmed Kiley’s story about the Gold Rush and the Bedford brothers. The ski resort opened in 1953 at the end of the county road where the Bedford homesteads once stood. The town’s brochure also mentioned the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Does everyone but me know about this film? How did I miss it? Claire had also come across an interesting nugget. She’d read that, likely due to a clerical error, the movie’s copyright ran out in 1976, putting it in the public domain and making it possible for anyone to show it anywhere, guaranteeing multiple repeat viewings.
According to the brochure, as years passed, tourists who visited Bedford Falls started asking if this was the Bedford Falls. Then, in 1980, the town council voted to approve a Christmas-All-Year theme. “Now. when people ask us, if this is the Bedford Falls, we say yes!” the mayor had declared at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Got to admire that entrepreneurial spirit. Claire had smiled and tucked the brochure in her purse as she went about her errands. When she’d landed the summer promotions job—the one that sounded so idyllic back in July—she’d appreciated that spirit, since it was an entrepreneurial drive that created her new position. Now, as she hobbled up the few remaining steps of the walk-up, with a throbbing ankle, she had to wonder if she’d made the right decision moving here.
“Three stairs to go,” Claire mumbled. Almost there. Where’s Kiley when I need her? She finally reached the top step with a grunt, grateful her apartment was only two doors down. Limping past Kiley’s front door, she half-hoped it would open, revealing her new friend and some well-deserved sympathy. Arriving at her own front door, she unlocked it, hobbled in, and collapsed on the sofa with a sigh of relief mingled with a groan of pain.
Two hours later, following an Epsom salts soak, a couple of acetaminophen, and a tight basket-weave wrap with an elastic bandage, Claire was ready to tackle the errand she’d set for herself—cruising the town on foot to learn more about her new community, check out those Christmas businesses, and stop off for some much-needed groceries on her way home. This just proves how tough you are, Claire. Who else would take a spill, hurt her foot, then head out to walk again?
She successfully navigated the staircase and mentally patted herself on the back. As she made her way down the street, her ankle twinged a bit and she stopped. Drat! So much for being Tough-Girl Claire. She changed course and headed for her car parked in the small lot in front of the apartment building. I’ll drive downtown, park in front of one of the shops, and walk from there. Her conscience nagged, reminding her the drive was barely over a mile and the walk in the fresh air would do her good. She stilled it with the promise she’d get back into a regular exercise routine as soon as she got settled and her ankle healed. Then she calmed the devil on her other shoulder. Don’t worry. I’ll come up with a different excuse next week. Thus absolved of guilt, she fired up her twelve-year-old sedan and headed downtown.
A few minutes later she found herself stopped at a parking meter. Parking meters? Nobody told me I’d need a stash of coins. She had plenty of dimes and nickels, but a quick check on the sign next to the meter told her random change wouldn’t cut it. These small-town meters were just as picky about their diets as big-city ones. Quarters only. Greedy little imps! She sighed and began digging.
A thorough search of her coin purse turned up enough quarters for one hour. Emptying her purse onto her lap produced two more, and a rummage through the drink holders and cubbies in her console gave her another. I can manage an hour forty-five and the meter only allows for two hours. Guess I’m there.
She fed the meter and did one more look at her car’s interior from the sidewalk, making sure nothing in view might tempt a thief. Big city habits die hard. Finally, she began her walk…only two hours and nineteen minutes behind her planned schedule. Her original goal was to locate each of the nine Christmas stores, take a leisurely wander through Everything Christmas Wonderland, pick up something delicious at the Winter Magic Bakery and Café, and hit Gary’s Grocery before heading home. Now, with one-hundred minutes left on her meter, she opted to skip Everything Christmas, use her map to locate the other businesses, and glimpse them all from the outside, thus saving a good thirty minutes for the grocery with time left over to return to her car. That meant…
I’ll have to leave Santa’s Workshop for another day, and maybe The Speckled Egg Gift Shoppe, too. They’re the outliers. At least the others are fairly close together. Reminding herself that she intended to live in this town for some time, and would yet have opportunities to check out the other stores, she walked…well, limped…to her first destination.
Christmas was everywhere—in the tasteful, tinsel-covered shapes hanging from the old-style lampposts; in the rows of lights gleaming from each store, even in the daytime; in the holiday music streaming from each open door; even in the billboard that stood at the corner of Main Street and Bedford Road announcing, Welcome to Christmas Town! Letting the holiday mood lift her spirits, she hobbled past Stinson Wood Crafts with its year-round selection of nutcrackers and nut bowls, birdhouses, ornaments, puppets, and sleds (check that Christmas-all-year store off the list; only eight to go!), and around the corner to the bakery.
All she had to do was follow her nose. Delicious aromas led her through the wide, nineteenth-century glass double doors and into a paradise of international baked desserts, many of them generally reserved for the holiday season. Danish Æbleskiver and Swedish pepparkakor lined up next to an elegant French Bûche de Noël, which looked to Claire much like an elaborately decorated Swiss roll. Dozens of other decadent treats whispered to her from nearby. Awed by the range and array of delights, she stood in indecision. I could live the rest of my life in this store, and die a happy old woman.
Unable to choose only one treat, she finally settled on a German lebkuchen and a buñuelo from a recipe used in the Dominican Republic. Only after making her choices and getting into line to pay did she realize she’d already spent nearly half her wander time lost in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s daydream. Looks like the rest of the Christmas stores will have to wait. I need to grab my groceries and get back to the meter before my car turns into a pumpkin and Cinderella has to limp home with one slipper.
The line moved slowly, the cashier had a chat-attack, and Claire left the bakery with no time to spare. Grumpy with herself for taking so long, she crossed the street, limping past Mrs. Claus’s Closet which, despite its tongue-twister name, seemed to be doing a fine business. Window displays showed off handmade jewelry, scarves and other accessories, and lingerie that would make Great Aunt Gertrude positively apoplectic. I’ll check you out another time, Claire promised the store as she passed.
Her time window shopping for food narrowed as she reached Gary’s Grocery to find all the shopping carts in use. The crowded aisles suggested why. Even the tiny hand-baskets were all gone. Everybody’s doing the same thing I am, stocking up before the holiday. As she stood pondering what to do next, a harried-looking man checked out with a baby bottle and a six-pack of formula, leaving a basket beside the second register. Claire grabbed it before it too disappeared, put her marked bag from the bakery in one end, and began a hurried-up version of the shopping she intended.
Aisles were packed, not all the shoppers sported festive moods, and Claire’s temper had taken a couple of hard hits by the time she reached the one working cash register where—wouldn’t you know it? —another long line had formed. When the clerk finally got to her order, Claire’s cell phone showed only four minutes left to reach her car. “I’m sorry,” she said, glancing at the cashier’s name tag. “I’m sorry, Dorene, but I’m in a terrible rush. Do you mind hurrying this order?”
Dorene, who looked like she’d recently survived a tornado, narrowed her eyes in a look that told Claire what to do with her order, and deliberately took her time. Reminding herself that she planned to live in this town and would likely see Dorene again, Claire forced a pleasant smile and murmured, “Thank you” as she grabbed her grocery bag and made a run …er…hobble for it.
It never occurred to me how much worse that ankle could hurt if I put extra weight on it. That’s troubling, considering this bag couldn’t weigh more than ten pounds, maybe twelve at the most. She shambled as fast as she could manage, back the way she had come.
Approaching Mrs. Claus’s Closet, she watched, amazed at the traffic for a shop with such a narrow focus. Judging by the large numbers of people coming out of her closet, Mrs. Claus must be down to her weekday skivvies. She hobbled past it and the
Everything Christmas store. Then, just as she was turning the corner, she stepped on a pebble. It was only a tiny stone, but to her weakened ankle, it could have been a boulder. Her leg buckled and she knew she was going to fall.
“It’s all right, miss. I’ve got you.” The strong male voice and the even stronger grip on her elbow seemed to come out of nowhere.
“Th-thank you.” Leaning heavily on the man’s arm, Claire steadied herself and turned, eager to see her rescuer. She almost gasped. And they said superheroes aren’t real!
She could tell he was just over six feet tall and powerfully built. He looks like he could pick up the Everything Christmas store and fly around the block with it! When it came to his face, he had the whole package—everything that had always rung her bells: the thick, slightly wavy brown hair; the puppy-dog brown eyes; the five o’clock shadow over a square jaw and the dimpled chin; even the dazzling smile. He couldn’t have looked more like a superhero if he ran around in tights and fainted near kryptonite. “I…I…” Come on, Claire. Say something!
“You’re a little shaken,” he said. “Give yourself a minute to catch your breath.”
A minute? My car! “I don’t have a minute,” she said, finally rediscovering the capacity for speech. “My car is at a parking meter that is about to run out—” She interrupted herself for a quick glance at her cell. “—that just ran out. Ooh.”
“Here, let me carry your bag,” he said, lifting it out of her arms. “Hang on to my arm, too. That will take pressure off that ankle. So…” He looked around. “Where’s your car?”
“In the city lot at the end of the block.”
“Then let’s get you there.” He set a quick pace that didn’t push Claire too hard, what with him carrying her burden and steadying her as she walked, and he offered small, encouraging comments along the way. They covered the remaining few yards quickly, passing the corner of the hotel and looking out at the large parking area. “Which car?”
“Oh no,” Claire said as she spotted it. “The blue sedan, the one where the meter reader just stopped.”
“Meet me there!” he said and went running. From where she stood, limping toward them, Claire heard her rescuer say, “Sorry I’m late, but I’m here now!” He cut in front of the meter reader—an older woman with a beehive hairdo who was just getting out of her cart—reached into his pocket at the same time, and quickly dropped a quarter into the slot. “There,” he said, grinning amiably. “Merry Christmas!”