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The relaxing scent of lavender in the hand cream that Jeanette Brioche was massaging into her cramped fingers did absolutely nothing to calm her jittery nerves. A few hours ago Maddie Maddox, her boss at The Corner Spa, had scheduled a meeting for six o'clock, immediately after Jeanette was due to finish with her last client. Maddie hadn't said what it was about, but her grim expression suggested it wasn't a celebration, something she and her friends Dana Sue and Helen organized at the drop of a hat.
Since Jeanette tended to be a worrier who saw disaster around every corner, she decided to get this over with even though it wasn't quite six. Her stomach knotted with dread, she walked down the hall to Maddie's office.
After tapping on the partially open door, Jeanette stepped inside to chaos. A disheveled Maddie was holding a wriggling six-month-old Cole in her arms and trying to feed him, while two-year-old Jessica Lynn ran wildly around the room, knocking everything in sight onto the floor. Maddie's usually well-organized folders were in a chaotic heap, and samples from their suppliers were scattered everywhere. A topless bottle of hand lotion had been upended.
"Help!" Maddie said to Jeanette, who promptly scooped up Jessica Lynn and tickled her until the child dissolved into giggles.
"Having a bad day?" Jeanette inquired, feeling her stomach unknot as the toddler patted her cheek with sticky fingers that smelled of rose-scented hand lotion. The more time she spent around Jessica Lynn and Cole, as well as Helen's little girl, however, the louder the ticking of Jeanette's biological clock seemed to get. The alarm hadn't gone off yet, but she sensed it was about to when the scent of baby powder started to smell better to her than the herbal aromas in the spa.
"A bad day, a bad week and more than likely a bad month," Maddie replied.
The weary response pretty much confirmed the reason for her earlier grim expression. Maddie had already had three children when she'd married Cal Maddox a few years ago and now had two more. Her oldest son, Ty, was a sophomore at Duke and star of the school's baseball team. Kyle was in high school and finally regaining his equilibrium after Maddie's divorce from his dad, and Katie had just turned nine and was only marginally impressed with being a big sister, rather than the baby of the family.
There was no question that Maddie had her hands full, even without taking into account that she ran The Corner Spa, which was a thriving fitness club and day spa for residents of Serenity, South Carolina, and beyond. Jeanette couldn't imagine how she juggled all those balls in the air. Most days she did it with aplomb. Today she looked completely frazzled.
"Want me to take our girl here and give her a beauty treatment?" she asked Maddie, even as Jessica Lynn struggled to break free.
"Actually, Cal should be here any second to pick them up," Maddie replied. "Then you and I can talk."
Just as she spoke, the man in question strode into the room, sized up the situation with a grin and took the squirming Jessica Lynn from Jeanette.
"How's my favorite girl?" he asked, tossing the toddler into the air, then planting a loud kiss on her cheek that had Jessica Lynn squealing with delight.
"I thought I was your favorite girl," Maddie grumbled with feigned annoyance.
Seemingly oblivious to his wife's mussed hair, lack of makeup and formula-splotched blouse, Cal set the two-year-old down and then leaned down to give Maddie a long, lingering kiss. "You are my favorite woman," he told Maddie. "And that is much, much better."
Jeanette watched enviously as Maddie touched his cheek in response and their eyes locked. It was as if the two of them were alone in the room. Dana Sue and Ronnie Sullivan, and Helen Decatur and Erik Whitney were equally smitten. Never in her thirty-two years had Jeanette experienced anything like the love these couples shared. It was little wonder that Jeanette almost sighed aloud with longing whenever she was around any of them.
In fact, their happiness was almost enough to convince her to give relationships another try. She'd been out of action for three years now, ever since she'd dumped the guy who'd resented her commitment to The Corner Spa. With Cal, Ronnie and Erik all devoted to their wives and supportive of their careers, Jeanette knew it was possible to find a man like that. She simply hadn't been that lucky yet.
Finally, her cheeks pink, Maddie tore her gaze away from her husband. "Nice save, Coach Maddox," she said, referring to Cal's role as the high school's baseball coach and her son's onetime mentor. "Now, would you get these two little munchkins out of here so I can have an intelligent conversation with Jeanette?"
"Sure thing," Cal said, putting baby Cole in his stroller and then hefting Jessica Lynn back into his arms. "Want me to pick up something from Sullivan's for dinner?"
Maddie nodded. "I've already called. Dana Sue will have a take-out order waiting for you. Just park in the alley and poke your head in the kitchen. She or Erik will bring it out."
"Got it," Cal said, grinning as he gave her a mock salute. "See you later. Have a good evening, Jeanette. Don't let her talk you into anything."
"Hush," Maddie ordered, giving him a stern look, then shooing him out of the office.
Jeanette regarded Maddie suspiciously when she shut the door behind her husband. "What are you planning to talk me into?"
"Oh, don't listen to him," Maddie said, though her expression remained vaguely guilty. "It's no big deal."
Which meant it was, Jeanette concluded. She knew Maddie pretty well after working with her to get the business opened. Now it ran like a well-oiled machine thanks in no small measure to Maddie's ability to minimize the difficulty of the assignments she was handing out to the staff. She could sweet-talk with the best of the southern belles. Jeanette had learned to be wary of that dismissive tone.
"Talk," Jeanette ordered.
"Now that I think about it, it's too nice to stay inside. Why don't we get a couple of glasses of sweet tea and talk on the patio," Maddie suggested, already striding out of the office and straight for the little café that was part of the spa.
Jeanette trailed along behind, the knot of dread back in her stomach.
After they were seated in the shade of a giant pin oak, which blocked most of the rays of the setting sun, Maddie took a long sip of her tea, sighed with contentment, then gave Jeanette a bright smile that seemed a little forced. "How's business?"
Jeanette almost laughed aloud. "You probably know the answer to that better than I do. Come on, Maddie. Just spill it. What's on your mind?"
Maddie set her tea carefully on the table and leaned forward, her expression earnest. "You know I pretty much have my hands full lately, right?"
"Of course I do," Jeanette said. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than real alarm set in. "You're not quitting, are you?"
"Heavens, no," Maddie said. "The Corner Spa is as important to me as it is to Helen and Dana Sue. I'm proud of what we've accomplished here, and I'm including you in that. You've done an amazing job with the spa services. I have no intention of abandoning ship."
"Thank goodness." Jeanette sat back with a sigh of relief. She'd run the spa both times that Maddie had been on maternity leave. She knew she could handle the day-to-day operations, but she didn't want to. Being in charge of spa services was enough responsibility to suit her. Massages, facials, pedicures and manicures, those were all things she'd been trained to do, treatments she understood. As far as she was concerned, the gym was little better than a torture chamber best left to the excellent personal trainers on staff. And the paperwork and marketing involved with keeping this place on the cutting edge in the region were beyond her expertise. Besides, she liked the daily interaction with the clients. Maddie rarely ever got to leave her office.
"Okay, let's back up," Maddie said. "All I was trying to say is that Jessica Lynn and Cole require huge amounts of attention right now, to say nothing of keeping Kyle and Katie on track. And I'm still more or less a newlywed." She grinned. "Or at least Cal always makes me feel like one."
"I can see that," Jeanette said wryly.
"Bottom line, my time's just not my own."
"Okay," Jeanette said cautiously.
"The Corner Spa's now one of the most successful businesses in town, which gives us a certain responsibility," Maddie continued. "We need to be community leaders, so to speak."
"Which means one of us needs to be involved in town activities and events." She regarded Jeanette earnestly. "We can't get away with just writing a check or participating. We need to take a leadership position, serve on committees, that kind of thing."
Jeanette's eyes widened as understanding finally dawned. "Oh, no," she said, the knot tightening. "You're not about to suggest what I think you are, are you?"
Maddie regarded her innocently. "I have no idea. What are you thinking?"
"Christmas," Jeanette said, barely able to utter the word without a shudder.
Like all holidays, Christmas in Serenity was a very big deal—decorations to rival anything ever seen in a staging of The Nutcracker, the arrival of Santa, musical performances by local choirs, candy canes and small token gifts for every child in town. The whole town sparkled with lights, and lawn displays ranged from tasteful to garish. The residents of Serenity loved it all. They embraced the season with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a five-year-old.
Not so Jeanette. Christmas in her life was something to be endured, a holiday season to survive, not a time for rejoicing or celebrating or mingling with neighbors. It had been that way for years now. In fact, most years she tried timing her vacation to the holiday season and spending it holed up with DVDs of all the movies she'd missed the previous year.
"No way," she told Maddie now. "Not a chance. I am not getting involved with the Christmas festival."
"Come on, Jeanette, please," Maddie begged. "It's a few meetings, making sure that lights are strung up, trees are lit, the church choirs invited to sing. You've been here long enough to know the drill. And you're one of the most organized people I know."
"And the least likely human being on the planet to want to do this," Jeanette said just as earnestly. "Really, Maddie, you do not want me anywhere near the town's holiday plans. I give new meaning to bah-humbug. If it were up to me, we'd cancel Christmas."
Maddie looked genuinely shaken. "Why? How can you not love Christmas?"
"I just don't, okay?" Jeanette said tightly. "I can't do this for you, Maddie. I can't. Anything else, but not this. I'll watch your kids, take on extra duties around here, whatever you need, but I won't be involved with the festival."
"I won't do it, Maddie, and that's final."
And for the first time in her three years at The Corner Spa, Jeanette stood up and walked out on her boss, leaving Maddie openmouthed with shock.
Tom McDonald had been town manager of Serenity for one hour and fifteen minutes when Mayor Howard Lewis walked into his office, plopped his pudgy body into a chair and announced, "Let's talk about Christmas."
Tom leveled a withering gaze at him that was intended to nip that idea right in the bud. "Don't you think we should be focusing on the budget, Howard? That comes up for a vote at the next council meeting and I need to be up to speed on what the priorities are around Serenity."
"I'll tell you what the top priority is," Howard replied with single-minded determination. "Christmas. We do it up big here in Serenity. Needs to be done right, so you need to call a meeting now. Get those chamber of commerce people and a few business leaders involved. I'll give you some names."
While Tom tried to figure out the best way to say no, Howard's expression turned thoughtful.
"Look," Howard said, "we could use some new decorations for the square, now that there are a few new businesses downtown. Maybe some of those big lighted snowflakes. I'm thinking downtown is where this year's celebration ought to be, just like the old days. The park's great, but there's something about a town square that just goes with an old-fashioned Christmas, don't you think?"
Tom ignored the question. "Are new decorations in the current budget?" he asked, trying to be practical and to avoid the quagmire of admitting his own distaste for the holidays.
"I doubt it," Howard replied with a shrug. "But there're always a few dollars here and there that can be used for emergencies. Discretionary funds, isn't that what you call them?"
"Snowflakes hardly qualify as an emergency purchase," Tom told him, wondering if he was going to have many discussions like this during his tenure in Serenity. If so, it was going to be a frustrating experience.
Howard waved off his objections. "You'll find a way, I'm sure. The point is to get started on this now."
"It's September, Howard," Tom reminded him, his dread growing in direct proportion to Howard's unwavering determination.
Howard waved off the reminder. "And it takes time to get things organized, especially when you have to rely on volunteers. Surely you know that. Your résumé cited all that organizational experience you have. Use it."
"It seems to me that since you have so much enthusiasm for this project, you should be the one in charge," Tom said, unable to keep the desperate note out of his voice. Another minute of even thinking about pulling together a Christmas celebration and he'd be sweating openly.
He'd grown up in a household that began holiday preparations not much later than this, complete with decorators who made every downstairs room in his family's Charleston household a designer's Christmas showcase before the round of social occasions began right after Thanksgiving. Heaven forbid that he or his sisters actually try to unwrap one of the packages on display under any of the lavishly decorated trees. Most were nothing more than empty boxes. Like a lot of things that went on in the McDonald home, it was all about show, not substance.
He was aware that Howard was studying him with a narrowed gaze. "You got something against Christmas?" the mayor inquired.
"In the religious context, absolutely nothing," Tom said quickly. "I'm just saying that organizing a bunch of decorations and such is not an effective use of my time. Then there's the whole issue of religious displays on public property, separation of church and state and all that. We need to be careful. The courts are ruling against a lot of these displays."