IT WAS THE DAY before Christmas Eve, and all through the one-horse town of Bullpens, folks were racing around, buying last-minute gifts. Every retailer from Hattie’s Hardware to Tubal’s Toy shop was overrun with giddy go-getters.
Thankfully, Cassidy didn’t buy into all the commercialism of the season. Truthfully, she had no interest in the holidays at all. For her, the most wonderful day of the year, wasn’t. It never had been.
The merry turned to misery when she was just four years old. That Christmas morning, she came bounding down the stairs of her parents’ suburban home—a white, two-story with a matching picket fence and the promise of never-ending happiness—to find her poodle, Miss Peaches, standing beneath the Christmas tree with Cassidy’s pet parrot dangling dead from her furry, canine cheeks. That tragedy was the beginning of the end. Each holiday thereafter brought with it sorrows more significant than the ones before.
Instead of bringing joy to her heart, Santa delivered appendicitis on her seventh Christmas. He threw the soot and ashes of a house fire down the chimney on her tenth Christmas. He brought a big bag of divorce and despair for her thirteenth Christmas. Cassidy would never forget her mother sitting beside the hearth, bursting into tears while Cassidy was opening up her first cell phone. The greatest surprise gift ever turned out to be the worst. The phone wasn’t for texting her friends. It was for calling her father because he was moving out to go live with his skanky secretary.
Since reaching adulthood, Cassidy had made a conscious choice to completely ignore Christmas. As far as she was concerned, it didn’t exist. Through trial and error, she had found isolation was the best insulation against its cruelty.
The one exception she made each year was the day before Christmas Eve. On that day, she rode her stallion Sparky into town to share a cup of coffee and a slice of fruitcake with her best friend, Sylvie Hornbeck. The two of them always met at Percolator Paul’s.
Paul was a tall, skinny, red-headed, freckled-faced, Howdy Doody type. He had a huge crush on Cassidy but was too shy to do much about it outside of building her a hitching post in front of his shop. He duplicated the ones you would find in an old western like Gunsmoke.
Since Cassidy was big on environmental protection, she rarely used a car if she could saddle up Sparky instead. With the coffee shop being well within riding distance of her rundown farmhouse—a true fixer-upper she had inherited from her Great-Uncle Roy—she enjoyed the freedom and serenity of galloping through the crisp, cold air of December.
When she stepped inside the shop, the warmth and aroma of richly-brewed coffee made her sigh. Her cowgirl boots made a pleasant tapping sound against the rough-board flooring as she made her way to a pine slab booth in the corner. Before she reached her destination, she heard Sylvie call her name.
“Cassidy! I’m over here,” she chirped, motioning her toward a table on the opposite side of the room.
Despite her distaste for the season, Cassidy couldn’t help but smile when she saw Sylvie’s outfit. Every holiday her best friend’s attire got more and more outrageous. This year’s ensemble consisted of fur-topped ankle boots with shiny jingle bells dangling from the tassels; tight-fitting, black leggings; and what had to be the gaudiest, most tasteless Christmas sweater ever to be made. It was a bright-green tunic featuring a bleary-eyed Santa and Rudolph. They were obviously soused to the gills. And in a true flashy fashion, both their noses blinked red.
When Cassidy was finally able to tear her gaze away from Sylvie’s attire, it landed on the laptop yawning before her. The blue LED light on the side was flashing, indicating the device was sucking hard on Paul’s free wi-fi signal.
Cassidy frowned. This could not be good. Any time her best friend implemented the use of technology, it meant she was preparing to butt in where she didn’t belong. To insinuate herself into someone else’s business without their knowledge or prior consent.
Cassidy had seen the catastrophic results of her handiwork too many times to count. She felt sorry for whoever the poor sap was on the receiving end of Sylvie’s meddling this time.
Cassidy removed her cowboy hat and tan Carhartt jacket and put them on an empty chair. She smiled when she saw Sylvie had already picked the red and green cherries out of her fruitcake and laid them on a napkin. For some odd reason, the woman had an aversion to the fruit part of the cake.
“Whatcha doin’?” Cassidy asked, pulling out a chair for herself. “Starting a GoFundMe campaign for Paul since we’re his only customers?”
“Ha-ha. You know why the place is empty. Everybody’s either last-minute panic-shopping or raking milk and bread off the shelves at the grocery store. Haven’t you heard the weather report? There’s a good chance we might have a white Christmas.”
“The radio on my saddle is broken. Besides, every color of Christmas pretty much looks the same to me.”
“Now hon, I want you to knock off that bah-humbug shit. Just because you’ve had a few less-than-satisfying yuletide experiences—”
“Less than satisfying?” Cassidy asked, her eyes wide and her mouth gaping. “Sylvie, need I remind you that just last Christmas, I got bitten by a raccoon and had to be treated for rabies?”
“But you did get to meet the handsome emergency room doctor with ice-blue eyes and a cleft chin.”
“Who was gay.”
“That was last year? Well, forget about all that. This time I’m going to make sure my bestie finally has the Christmas she deserves.”
Cassidy frowned and glared at the laptop. “Sylvie,” she said warily, “what are you doing?”
“Nothing. It’s already done, and you’re welcome. But I need to fill you in on all the details so you can be ready. I arranged for your gift three days ago. It is scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening at six.”
Cassidy took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. “First of all, you and I don’t exchange gifts at Christmas. We treat each other with little presents all year long. We agreed not to fall victim to the commercialized pressure of the season. Second, what do you mean by arranged?”
“See for yourself,” Sylvie said, turning the laptop toward her.
The website she had pulled up was called SingleSantas.com. Bordered with mistletoe, it featured an impossibly-handsome man in a black tuxedo. Standing near a silver Christmas tree adorned with bright, white lights and shiny, royal-blue balls, he was embracing a lovely young woman in a silky, black evening dress. They looked mighty cozy with a fireplace glowing orange embers in the background. Their slightly-parted mouths were inches apart as he leaned in for what was definitely going to be an earth-shattering, knee-buckling kiss.
A red-ribbon banner read The Weather Outside May Be Frightful, But Inside—With Your Own Sexy Santa—It Will Be So Delightful.
“I am going to kill you,” Cassidy said.
“Kiss me, you mean. Just wait until you see the god I’ve picked out for you. Here are the details: you and your gorgeous Santa—his name is Robert—will rendezvous in formal attire at Dixie’s Diner at six o’clock sharp Christmas Eve. I know you’d rather be boot-scooting, but Dixie has graciously consented to play only slow-dancing, George Strait ballads on the jukebox.”
“Never mind, you’ll love him. After enjoying a rainbow trout and barbecue ribs entrée at a candlelit table for two—along with figgy pudding, of course—you and your Single Santa will be chauffeured in Rafe Cobb’s vintage ’62 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to either A, the Bullpens Little Theatre production of Miracle on 34th Street or B, a romantic ride through Mather Jenkins’ corn maze in a Portland Sleigh with red velvet upholstery. Your choice.”
“I choose to watch a Lifetime movie by myself on my couch back at the farmhouse.”
Sylvie looked absolutely crushed. “Why would you hurt me like this?”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to. But you should have consulted with me before—” Beneath Client Profile she saw a picture of a sprawling ranch house that had to be over 7000 square feet nestled in a valley against snow-capped mountains. Beside it sat a magnificent stone-and-clapboard barn. It looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. A four-rail fence of black wood and ornate posts surrounded what appeared to be two dozen or so thoroughbred horses grazing in a lush meadow. “What the hell is this?”
“That’s where you live, hon,” Sylvie said with a self-satisfied smile.
“Have you been sniffing glue? That fence is sturdier than the frame of my farmhouse and probably cost ten times as much. You can throw a cat through some of the cracks in my walls. The tin roof leaks, the doors get stuck and the front porch slants so much I’d slide out of the swing if it didn’t have arms.”
“But you do have horses.”
“I have a horse. The sorrel quarter horse you see nibbling on the hitching post outside. The barn I keep him in could probably fit in one of the stalls of the one pictured here.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sylvie said. “Everybody embellishes. I simply jazzed up your profile a little. Where’s the harm? Besides, your Santa is meeting you in Bullpens. He’ll never even see the farmhouse. I did use a recent photo of you so he could see your oval face, champagne-blonde hair, chocolate eyes and dark brows. I even said you were a plus-size girl with a lot of curves a man could cuddle up to on a cold winter’s night.”
“That you tell the truth about!”
“As you can see there under Preferences, I said you liked tall, blond, blue-eyed men with muscles who are caring and have a great sense of humor. They guarantee the Single Santa they send will match that description to a tee.”
Even though that was definitely her type, Cassidy shook her head. “Nope. Can’t do it. Cancel the date.”
“It’s too late. They have to have seventy-two hours’ notice, and payment is non-refundable.”
“I’ll reimburse you. This has disaster written all over it.”
“Cassidy, it’s not about the money,” Sylvie said, her expression growing serious. “You are the best friend I ever had, and it saddens me that what should be a joyous time of year for you has nothing but bad experiences associated with it. Girl, all it would take is one happy Christmas to show you they don’t all have to be miserable. Yes, I know we never exchange gifts at Christmastime. But this once, I would consider it a gift if you would accept mine.”
She suddenly felt like the biggest jerk in the world. She could see in Sylvie’s stark, slightly-misting gray eyes how genuinely she wanted to do this for her. Sighing, Cassidy reached across the table and clasped her friend’s hands. “All right, Sylvie. If it means so much to you, I’ll go along with it. But I’m definitely getting you an official Christmas present now. We Quinlans may be poor, but we’re proud.”
“Nonsense. Just take lots of selfies, and be prepared to give me all the juicy details.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Cassidy said. “In my case, ‘tis the season for things to go horribly wrong. If my hot, single Santa even shows up—which is not a lock by any means—I wouldn’t be surprised if he looks exactly like the red-nosed, sloppy-drunk one on your sweater.”
CRAHAN SLEIGHTON SQUINTED THROUGH the windshield of his helicopter cockpit and cursed. Visibility through the furiously-whizzing snow was extremely limited. The wipers on his highly-specialized bird were having a devil of a time keeping up.
He had left the city early, figuring he’d need extra time to negotiate the weather. The Christmas Eve morning snowstorm was of a greater intensity than the radar had indicated. Given the super-strong winds, keeping his helicopter level was dicey, to say the least. Even more troubling was the fact he had experienced sudden, inexplicable dips in the RPM twice in the last ten miles. Just in case it was an indication of possible mechanical failure and he needed to make an emergency landing, he kept an eye open for flat fields and meadows below.
After letting air traffic control know his situation, he contacted his Atlanta office on his headset radio. “Miss Emile, I’m roughly five miles outside of this Bullpens place, and I do mean roughly. Everything at a standstill your way?”
“Pretty much gridlocked, Mr. Sleighton. The roads are covered with snow on top of a thick layer of ice. I’ve seen three fender benders outside my office window already this morning. It never ceases to amaze me how people will so carelessly and stupidly put themselves in dangerous situations for no good reason.” Her conversational tone suddenly turned apologetic. “Not that I think you’re stupid, Mr. Sleighton, sir.”
“Miss Emile, there’s a world of difference between foolishly braving the elements to purchase one more stocking stuffer as opposed to fulfilling an obligation to a paying client. Do we not guarantee satisfaction when one engages our services?”
“We do, sir.”
“Then the most critical part of that guarantee is actually showing up, is it not?”
“It is, sir.”
“I didn’t start SingleSantas.com with the idea of only providing companionship when it suited us or was convenient or when there were no freak snowstorms blanketing the South,” said the 30-year-old CEO. “Blasted climate change.”
“No, you didn’t, sir. On that note, Robert Krachef called a little while ago. He’s still digging out of his apartment, and his company Hummer is buried under an eight-foot snowdrift. He wanted me to tell you he might be able to make it up to Tennessee by late Christmas evening, perhaps eight or nine o’clock, if that would be acceptable.”
“It would not. The strict parameters of the date are from six o’clock Christmas Eve until six in the evening Christmas Day. That is what the client has contracted for, and that is what we shall deliver. Nothing more and nothing less. Tell Krachef to stay put and expect his pay to be docked. I’ll handle this situation myself.”
“Yes, sir. One other thing: Killian called from Dusseldorf. He wants to confirm you are still coming over first thing next week to get the export business up and running.”
It was one of several European enterprises Crahan had been developing over the past five years. He would need to fly there to personally cut the ribbon and host a gala for the investors. “Tell him I’ll be arriving on the evening of the twenty-sixth. You’ve arranged my accommodations at Breidenbacher Hof for the next two months, I assume.”
“You’re all set. Have a good time in Bullpens, Mr. Sleighton.”
“I’m not up here for a good time, Miss Emile. This is a date.”
Crahan’s helicopter suddenly lost power. The instrument panel went dark, and his radio went dead. At the exact moment, a powerful gust sent the bird yawing sharply to the left. He tried to correct with the foot pedals and the collective, but the copter was unresponsive.
Out of the right side of the windshield, he caught a brief sight of what looked like a white-blanketed field surrounded by barbed wire rising above the drifts. He hoped the wind would put him directly over it when the main rotors went into autorotation and the helicopter began its vertical descent.
But long before he figured to hit the ground, the machine was jarred violently. He’d never been to Tennessee before. Maybe he’d run into one of the snow-capped mountains he’d seen in the client’s profile. But a mountain would be much higher. I’ve hit a tree, he thought as he tried to find the delicate balance between firmly holding on while relaxing his body as much as possible. Extreme relaxation was the reason so many drunks avoided broken bones in a crash. Relaxed was definitely the way to ride this out. The last thing Crahan needed was a fractured leg or skull.
In the surreal space of a few seconds which seemed interminable, there was the awful screech of ripping sheet metal mixed with the rending of wood and a dusty smell of hay.
Crahan’s headstone flashed before his eyes:
HE WAS A DULL BASTARD, BUT HE GOT THE JOB DONE.
To read more about Crahan and Cassidy click here: smarturl.it/CurvyCountryRomance