It's a Wonderful Christmas: An American Carol\Miracle on Bannock Street\It's a Wonderful Night

It's a Wonderful Christmas: An American Carol\Miracle on Bannock Street\It's a Wonderful Night

by Jasmine Cresswell, Colleen Collins, Kathleen Long

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In Charles Dickens Brentwood's profit-driven life, there is no time for sentimentality. There's no room for family, friends or even the only woman he's ever loved. But when Christmas Eve visitations of holidays past and future show him the life he could have, will Charles change his ways and make this An American Carol his ancestor would be proud… See more details below


In Charles Dickens Brentwood's profit-driven life, there is no time for sentimentality. There's no room for family, friends or even the only woman he's ever loved. But when Christmas Eve visitations of holidays past and future show him the life he could have, will Charles change his ways and make this An American Carol his ancestor would be proud of?

Down-on-her-luck Stella Gray is about to lose her apartment and her business. The last thing she needs is temporary custody of a troubled boy and the distraction of his well-meaning—and attractive—lawyer, Victor Lancaster. But with Kris Kringle's help and a little Miracle on Bannock Street, this unlikely trio might actually form a family.

Meredith Downey wishes she'd left town and never looked back when she'd had the chance. But It's a Wonderful Night when her wish is magically granted and she discovers how different life would have been without all the people whose lives she's touched—and the man she's come to love.

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Harlequin Anthology
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The cavernoue interior of Brentwood Industries was unnaturally quiet—the staff had all gone home, phones and computers silenced by the arrival of Christmas Eve. Gloria Alvarez checked one last time to make sure no memo was left uncirculated on her desk and no folder poked out of its appointed file drawer. Satisfied that nobody, not even the notoriously difficult and demanding Charles Brentwood, would be able to complain that she'd left important work unfinished, she shut down her computer and got up from her desk.

Instead of immediately walking into Mr. Brent-wood's office, she stood by her chair for a full minute, summoning the nerve to confront her bad-tempered employer. Finally, as ready as she was ever likely to be, she crossed the deserted outer office and tapped softly on the door of his lair.

"Come in." Her boss delivered the words in his usual snarl.

So much for the joys of the Christmas season, Gloria thought, rolling her eyes. Still intimidated by his grouchy attitude after almost a year working for him, she dug deep to find some courage. Then she squared her shoulders, opened the door and walked in.

The president's office was quite small and hadn't been refurbished since the death of Mr. Brentwood senior a dozen years earlier. Given that Brentwood Industries was among the most successful plumbing supply companies in the country, the current CEO could probably have sprung for a new rug and a comfortable chair without breaking the bank. However, Charles D. Brentwood was notorious for never spending a dollar if he could squeak by on a dime, so it was only to be expected that his office would be as cold, cheerless and shabby as the man himself.

Astonishingly, Mr.Brentwood wasn't seated at his desk, barricaded behind his laptop, poring over the latest logistics chart or whatever the heck it was he spent so much time scrutinizing. Instead, he was standing by the grimy window, looking out at the view of Trenton, New Jersey, and the warehouses that ringed Brentwood's headquarters.

Gloria so rarely saw her boss standing up that she was shocked to realize he was both tall and well built, with thick brown hair that he had allowed to grow unfashionably long. Probably because he was too cheap to pay for a haircut, she reflected with a cynicism that was alien to her usually sunny nature. In profile, when you couldn't see his expression, he was good-looking in a boring sort of way. Old, of course, but since she had celebrated her nineteenth birthday only a month ago, Gloria had to admit that anybody over the age of thirty looked old to her.

She followed her boss's gaze out the window. For once, the view was worth looking at. It was snowing: the sort of crisp, powdery snow that hushed the noisy clamor of the city and laid a thick coat of glistening white on the ugliness of decrepit and abandoned buildings. Gloria felt her spirits lift. Even inside the bleak headquarters of Brentwood Industries it seemed that Christmas could impart a touch of magic, a shimmer of hope in a wintry world.

She seized the hope and clung to it, allowing optimism to bloom. So what if it sometimes felt as if she carried the weight of the world on her inadequate shoulders? Tomorrow was Christmas Day, and she would sit down with her family to eat delicious roast turkey and pan dulce and forget for a few hours that her father still didn't have his green card and that there was never enough money to pay Timoteo's medical bills. When her mama's pan dulce was on the table, she thought with a silent laugh, the world couldn't be all bad.

Besides, there was always a chance that Mr. Brentwood would reward her hard work with a Christmas bonus. Well, it could happen, Gloria told herself. It was possible. Even twenty dollars would mean that she could stop at the drugstore on the way home to buy chocolate candies for the family and some of the special diabetic lollipops her little brother loved. She'd worked hours of unpaid overtime in the six months since she had been promoted to the job of Charles Brentwood's personal assistant. Maybe it wasn't silly to hope for a small holiday bonus.

"Mr. Brentwood, it's four o'clock and it's Christmas Eve. If it's okay with you, I'd like to leave now."

"Of course it's not okay with me." Charles Brent-wood slowly turned to face her, his eyebrows drawn together in a heavy, disapproving line. "The workday finishes here at five-thirty. Why would today be any different?"

Because it's Christmas Eve, you mean old grouch, and every other person in the building has gone home. Gloria drew in a deep breath. "I'm sorry, sir, but I still must leave early. There is a special service at our church tonight and it starts at six. There will be a nativity play and songs from our Mexican tradition. I promised my little brother I would take him, and I won't be home in time unless I leave now. There are not so many buses tonight because of the holiday."

Charles Brentwood's frown grew darker. Gloria felt sweat trickle down her spine. This was not a man who appreciated employees with the backbone to stand up to his harsh demands. The fact that everyone else had already left wouldn't protect her if he decided to fire her. Mr. Brentwood had made it clear when he promoted her that she wouldn't keep her new job and fractionally increased salary unless she worked harder and longer than the rest of his under-paid, overworked staff.

"The holidays and buses aren't my problem," Charles Brentwood said. "They're your problem. My problem is that the agenda for the January sales meeting hasn't been prepared—"

"Yes, sir, it has. I e-mailed it to you an hour ago."

Far from looking pleased by her efficiency, her boss frowned so ferociously that Gloria thought for sure he would fire her on the spot. She contemplated the possibility of losing her pay for however many weeks it took to find a new job and shivered with fear at the prospect. At this time of year, in a manufacturing town that had lost most of its factories, people weren't exactly rushing to take on new hires, and her family lived too close to the edge to have any wiggle room for grand gestures.

Then she thought about Teo and the rest of her family, waiting for her at home, eager for the festivities to start, and she decided not to give in. If there had been a genuine emergency, she would have been willing to sacrifice family time, even on Christmas Eve. But there was no crisis, and if Mr. Brentwood wanted to play the Grinch, he could do it by himself. She wasn't going to hang around on such a special night with a man who was making work for no real reason except that he was mean all the way through to his shriveled black heart.

"And now, I must go," she said, her resolution firm even if her voice was shaking. "My brother is still very young and he won't understand if I'm not there when my family leaves for church. Good night, Mr. Brentwood. I wish you a merry Christmas."

Gloria turned and walked out of the room.A holiday bonus had obviously been a crazy fantasy, but she crossed her fingers tightly and prayed that she wouldn't lose her job. Not today. Not at Christmas. But whatever happened, she wasn't going to disappoint Teo.

"Gloria!" Charles Brentwood's voice thundered behind her.

She stopped, but didn't turn around. "Yes, sir?"

"I'll…see you on Thursday morning. Make sure you're not late."

She had a feeling he'd been going to say something else, but Gloria didn't care what it might have been. She sent up a quick prayer of thanks to the Baby Jesus because at least she hadn't been fired. That was the main thing. Her salary kept the Alvarez household afloat at this time of year when her father found it so much more difficult to pick up work as a day laborer, and of late her mother's meager wages from the motel had all been eaten up by Teo's diabetic supplies. Gloria had been born in the United States and could work legally, thank goodness, but her parents were condemned to the hazards and insecure paychecks of the underground economy.

She escaped Mr. Brentwood's bleak, depressing office, grabbed her thick parka, and hurried to the bus stop. She was already smiling by the time she reached the sidewalk. She turned her face up to feel the feathery caress of snowflakes falling on her cheek, and her cares dropped away, dissolved by thought of the pleasures waiting to greet her in the next few hours. It was Christmas Eve, the church would be warm and glowing with the light of a hundred candles. Teo was doing better than usual, a huge cause for celebration. And tonight her friends would be at the church, and all her family, as well, including her favorite cousins from the other side of town. Her sister was playing the role of an angel in the nativity play, and Teo was singing a solo. Afterward, when the play was done, they would all drink hot apple cider and eat Christmas cookies and everyone would laugh and hug as they wished each other a merry Christmas. How could anyone be sad on such a wonderful, magical night?

Poor Mr. Brentwood, who had no idea that although his bank account might be overflowing, his life was a dark, dank cave, lacking almost everything that made life worth living. Gloria ran to catch her bus, her feet made nimble by hope and joyful anticipation.

Charles listened to the sound of Gloria's footsteps running across the linoleum and heading out of the building. The huge, iron-barred front door slammed, leaving him alone. Entirely alone on Christmas Eve, just as he had been for every holiday over the past dozen years. Ever since Rachel had left him. He felt a clenching in the pit of his stomach and told himself that in future he'd better stop eating dill pickles with his lunchtime sandwich. Clearly, they didn't agree with him. Besides, they cost a dollar a pickle, which was money he didn't need to spend.

He walked over to the window, angling himself so that he could see Gloria running to catch her bus, her bright scarlet knitted cap a beacon of color in the gathering winter darkness. She looked so young. So…happy.

With an impatient click of his tongue, Charles turned away from the sparkling snow to the familiar dingy grays and beiges of his office. That was the trouble with immigrants, he thought sourly. They had no work ethic. Everything was fiesta and mañana. If good help weren't so hard to come by, he'd have fired Gloria for quitting before the end of the workday. He'd come damn close. At the last minute, though, something had held him back—something less rational than the difficulty of finding a replacement.

In retrospect, he couldn't understand what had precipitated that foolish, sentimental lapse of judgment. He was just as willing to cut nonperforming employees on December 24 as he was on any other date. You couldn't keep a business profitable for long if you ran it on sentiment instead of economic reality. China and India had plenty of manufacturers willing to step in and grab your market, and their workers considered themselves lucky if they earned enough to eat three square meals a day. Here they all complained because he didn't provide health insurance for dependants and three weeks' paid vacation, for heaven's sake! These ungrateful immigrants needed to wake up and smell the competition.

Charles glanced at his watch. Four-fifteen. In England it would already be after nine at night. His mother, Annelise Brentwood, née Annelise Dickens, would no doubt be entertaining her friends with wine and literary conversation. If the guests were really unlucky, he thought cynically, she would treat them to a recital of whatever poem she'd just finished writing—probably something about the joys of the holiday season, since his mother tended to embrace the banal. She certainly wouldn't welcome a phone call from her boring, inarticulate son, he could be quite sure of that. In fact, he had no idea why the possibility of calling her had even crossed his mind. His mother wanted only one thing from him—money. He wanted nothing at all from her.

Charles pulled himself out of a rare few moments of reflection. Brooding about failed family relationships was a waste of good thinking time and he had more productive ways to spend the evening. He returned to his desk and sat down at the computer, opening up the design program he'd been working on when he'd been overcome by a crazy impulse to stare at the snow. Brentwood Industries needed to have a totally revamped product line by the end of January and the specifications ought to have been finalized by now. Unfortunately, he'd been wrestling with one particular design for kitchen hardware for over a week now. He'd told himself repeatedly that time was money and he couldn't afford to waste any more hours fiddling with details that were aesthetic, not functional. Still, he couldn't quite convince himself that the design was ready to go into production.

"This is your last chance to do it right," he muttered, settling back into the rhythm of work. "Get to it, Charles."

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