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A Suddenly Cinderella Christmas Carol
By Hope Tarr, Alycia Tornetta, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Hope Tarr
All rights reserved.
Christmas Eve, December 24th
Union Square, Manhattan, New York
"Happy Holidays, Ms. S."
Standing in her apartment building's marbled lobby, managing editor of On Top magazine Cynthia Starling — Starr — scowled at her doorman's grinning face. Even in the midst of pulling a double shift on Christmas Eve, Jimmie was so chock-full of holiday cheer it was almost sickening. Strike the almost — it was sickening.
He let the glass door fall gently closed behind her, his thin navy uniform scant protection against the raw, gusty evening. "Got big plans?" His eagle- eyed gaze rested pointedly on the plastic bag of takeout Thai food weighing down her left arm.
Starr swallowed a groan and settled for a noncommittal shrug. Doormen were notorious gossips, and a nice guy like Jimmie was no exception. She thought wistfully of her former Brooklyn Heights pre-war walkup with its creaking pipes, cracked plasterwork — and patina of privacy. Her current sleek new building boasted an onsite laundry room, gym, and a rooftop deck, not to mention its posh Union Square location, a mere ten- minute subway commute to the On Top offices. Still, at times such as this, she'd gladly sacrifice the luxury and convenience to be able to slip in and out without an audience.
Jimmie walked over to the kidney-shaped front desk, its glossy maple veneer buried beneath stacks of newly delivered parcels. "Before I forget, something came for you this morning."
"Great," she said, glancing down at her already full arms. Another holdup, just what she needed. Would this day — this holiday — never end?
Jimmie darted behind the desk. Burrowing through the piles, he brought out a medium-size box covered in plain brown packing paper and handed it to her. "Hope it's just what you asked Santa for."
Santa — oh, puh-lease! "Yeah, whatever, it's probably a work thing, but thanks."
Her gaze zoned in on the return address, and she snatched it, pulse picking up. Although there was no name, the Washington, D.C., address gave her a pretty good idea of the sender.
Macie Freakin' Graham!
She hadn't spoken to her former features editor since Macie had gone rogue on her that autumn, falling for the subject of her undercover investigation — famous radio personality Ross Mannon — and quitting not only the story but also the magazine, right in the middle of Starr's staff meeting, no less. That Mannon had once done his damnedest to take down the magazine was apparently forgiven and forgotten in the hormone rush that Macie's month-long masquerade as his housekeeper must have released.
So much for five years of grooming! So much for gratitude! If it hadn't been for Starr, Macie would still be writing engagement announcements for her hometown newspaper. At the very least, Macie might have given her a heads-up on the whole quitting thing. Still, a part of Starr — the squishy soft part she worked really hard to hide — wasn't only professionally put out but personally hurt. Over the course of five years of shared Fine Wine Fridays and Sushi Saturdays at On Top, plus the occasional movie and drinks meet-up outside of work, she'd thought she and Macie had become more than just boss and employee, that on some level they were ... friends.
So far she'd refused to reply to the wedding invitation along with Macie's other overtures — e-mails, texts, and even a few sad- sounding voice messages. If Graham — make that Graham- Mannon — thought she could soften her up with some bullshit holiday peace offering, she was about to learn otherwise. Still, being human meant being, on some level, curious. She'd take the box up to her apartment, allow herself a quick peek inside, and then give it to Jimmie with instructions to ship it back.
"Thanks." She tucked the parcel beneath her arm and turned to go.
Jimmie's voice stalled her. "Look, Ms. S., I was just wondering if you maybe don't have plans for tomorrow" — once again his gaze slid down to the takeout bag knocking against her knee — "maybe you'd like to join me and my family at the homeless shelter for women and kids in Astor Place. They put on a big Christmas spread every year. My wife and kids help with serving the food, and I dress up as Santa. We've been going every Christmas Day for five years now, and I wouldn't miss it. If you could see the smiles on those little kids' faces when ..."
He bleated on, but Starr tuned him out. If Jimmie wanted to spend his day off stuffed inside a Santa suit, that was his business, but Starr considered holiday-inspired volunteerism a crock. Being charitable one day a year might make do-gooders like Jimmie feel all soft and gooey inside, but people needed to eat three hundred and sixty-five days a year, not only on December twenty-fifth.
Aiming her gaze at the bank of elevators, one of which was out of order yet again, she shook her head. "I have other plans, but thanks."
It wasn't, strictly speaking, a lie. She did have plans — plans to spend the holiday home alone with her cat — but that didn't mean Jimmie's was her only invitation. There had been another — from the magazine's new art director, Matt Landry.
With his sexy half smile, washboard abs hinted at beneath his T-shirts, and hazel eyes that shifted from mostly blue to mostly green with mesmerizing swiftness, Landry was too hot for her to manage as she did the other members of her team and too damned good at his job for her to do anything other than get out of his way. Being anywhere in his vicinity turned her insides to Jell-O and other parts of her to the scalding liquid mocha lava cake they'd featured in December's food column. The degree to which she'd noticed him, every nuance of him, from that very first interview seven months earlier had alarmed her. It still alarmed her. At thirty-four — okay, soon-to-be thirty-five — she was too old to indulge in an office crush, but also sufficiently senior that she couldn't risk letting it become anything more. And then there was the issue of their not-exactly-insignificant age gap. Landry might have the aura of an old soul, but his smoking hot body had walked the earth for just twenty- eight years.
For a guy still in his twenties who'd spent most of that time in his native Florida, he'd amassed an impressive portfolio. Even the low-profile catalogue and hotel brochure stuff had blown her away with its unique vision and edgy creativity. His was a high-energy vibe that On Top needed to tap into. To live up to the boast of its name, the magazine needed more than a new logo. It needed a fresh vision, an artistic voice that would resonate with its Generation-Y readership. Leafing through his book, Starr had quietly conceded that Matthew Gabriel Landry was the very best candidate for the job. She couldn't exactly justify not hiring him simply because she didn't trust herself around him. Time was money and interviewing candidates took up both. Besides, a stud like Landry probably had a harem of twenty-something twits on the hook. She'd figured on being more or less invisible to him as a woman.
She'd figured wrong.
That evening, while cramming papers into her laptop case in preparation for leaving, she'd had the sudden disconcerting sense of being watched. She'd looked up — and found Landry standing in her open office doorway, his intense hazel eyes stroking over her, the shifting sands of his irises caressing her face. The times when he showed up unexpectedly, and her guard was down and her will weak, the brilliance of his beauty seemed to burn her aquamarine eyes to ash and drain the last drop of moisture from her mouth.
"What is it, Landry?" she'd snapped, and immediately felt the hot sting of a blush strike her cheeks, her redhead's porcelain complexion, as always, a dead giveaway.
He'd hesitated, the fluorescent hallway lights haloing his shoulder- length hair — the wavy chestnut locks freed from his customary work ponytail. "A group of us is going for drinks. You know, chill out and celebrate tomorrow being a holiday. I — we — were wondering if you might want to come with."
She'd shoved a copper-colored curl out of her eyes and let out a brittle laugh to cover her heart's wild drumming. "And risk being lynched? I don't think so. Thanks but no thanks."
It might be Christmas week but the magazine world had already moved on to Valentine's. As the month of hearts and flowers, February was their single biggest seller of subscriptions and generator of ad revenue. It was also scarily behind schedule, and with Macie's replacement yet to be found, Starr was seriously short-staffed on the editorial side. To make up the missed time, she'd told her entire team, including Landry, to be back in the office on December twenty-sixth. She'd never been exactly popular with her people, but the tough decision to curtail Christmas vacations had hefted the bar toward hate.
The December holiday-themed issue had come out weeks ago. She mentally ticked off the article titles and taglines. Cuddling up on Christmas Eve, Latest Lingerie Trends and Mistletoe Must-Haves, What to Wear (and NOT to Wear) to Sleigh Him on New Year's Eve, and, of course, the latest reworked take on what was pretty much every month's anchor story: sex. Hanukkah Hankie Panky and Christmas Canoodling: Seven Sexy Secrets to Have Him Ho-Ho-Hoing in the Sack. Imagining canoodling with Landry beneath a brightly lit Christmas tree — the silken feel of his taut, Florida-tanned flesh bared and rippling beneath her fingertips, her wearing skimpy scarlet lingerie and five fewer pounds — shot a quiver of desire through her.
"The way you're smiling, Ms. S., you must be planning on some serious celebrating for sure."
Snapped back to attention, Starr spied the knowing smile on Jimmie's face and felt hers flame. "My plans aren't anyone's business."
Like a bum Christmas tree bulb, Jimmie's smile flickered to blackout. "Sorry about that, Ms. S. You have a good hol — time whatever you do."
Eager to escape, she marched over to the working elevator and jabbed the button. Tapping her foot as the floor numbers dipped downward with maddening slowness, she silently ticked off her to-do list. Most of the action items had been taken care of earlier, if not altogether crossed off. Still, the sense of having let something slip nagged at her. The elevator landed — finally! — and the double doors pulled back. She stepped swiftly inside and pressed the fifth floor and close buttons before anyone could join her. Not that there were many people left around. The one upside to Christmas was it emptied out the building. By now, more than half of her fellow residents would have left the city for somewhere else, somewhere they identified as "home." The laundry room, gym, and elevator would be more or less hers until Sunday night.
Watching the elevator climb to her floor, she couldn't wait to get inside her apartment. Christmas Day might be a load of crap — it was a load of crap — but it was still a day off. A day to read, to marathon watch all the TV she missed during the week, and to chill out with her Maine Coon cat, Molly Jane. Hers might not be a storybook existence, but at least she was living in reality, not some glittery Christmas Fools' Paradise.
But the biggest reason of all for spending the holiday alone, the reason for the single Crumbs cupcake tucked inside the top of her takeout bag, was that tomorrow wasn't only Christmas Day. Crappy Christmas was also her crappy birthday, her thirty-fifth.
Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus — and in Starr's case the Jolly Old Elf had pulled double duty as Santa Stork.CHAPTER 2
Balancing her burdens, Starr stooped to fit the apartment key into her deadbolt lock. A familiar braying meow greeted her even before the door opened. She stepped inside to find Molly Jane waiting in her usual spot, black ears and fluffy black tail sticking straight up. As always, the sight of that beloved little fur face had her spirits lifting and her heart softening.
She put down her bags, shrugged out of her coat, and reached down to stroke the silken black head. "How's Mommy's good girl? Hungry, I'll bet."
The black-and-white tuxedo cat meowed loudly and leapt to meet her outstretched hand, demanding more. It was hard to believe the kitten she'd rescued a few days after 9/11 was a senior now. Closing in on twelve, Molly Jane didn't act her age or otherwise seem aware of it. Blissful oblivion to birthdays, what Starr wouldn't give for that!
Straightening, she hung her coat up on the hooked mirror, kicked off her heavy boots, and carried the plastic bags inside the galley-style kitchen, a slender space outfitted with state-of-the-art appliances, tall maple-finished cabinets, and black marble countertops. She cracked open a can of Science Diet, forked the contents into a clean cat bowl, and set it down on the tiled floor. "Bon appÃ(c)tit, baby."
The cat's head dropped to the bowl like an anchor, and Starr looked lovingly on as the tuna-flavored pet food quickly became history. Since Macie's leaving, Molly Jane was unabashedly Starr's best friend. Who was she kidding? With Graham permanently out of the picture, her pet was her only friend.
Reaching down for the empty bowl, the nagging sensation of having forgotten something returned. Silently she mentally ticked off her list again. Drop off the dry cleaning, including the angora sweater with the red wine stain — the winter white sweater, wouldn't you know? — check. Remind her assistant editor, Terri, to finalize the February ads with the magazine's advertising department — check. Email Landry about the revised logo design for the new cover concept — check. Call her mother in Arizona, thank her for the early birthday card, and wish her and Husband #2 a good Christmas? Distasteful as it was, she'd done that duty, too.
She glanced down at the receipt stapled to the outside of the carryout bag and suddenly it hit her. She'd forgotten to stop at the ATM. No wonder Jimmie had talked off her ear. He'd probably hoped she'd come around to remembering his Christmas bonus before he got off shift.
Another problem with living in a big fancy high-rise was that the staff always had its hand out, especially at Christmastime. Along with giving Jimmie his end-of-year bonus, she was expected to tip the rest of the building crew. It added up. It wasn't like these people didn't get salaries and, in the case of the super, his apartment was included as a perk. Jimmie, however, lived in Astoria, not far from the blue-collar neighborhood where Starr had grown up. He and his wife had a bunch of kids, including their youngest son, Timothy, born with some sort of crippling scoliosis.
Unfortunately, picking up the few grocery staples from the bodega and then the cupcake and takeout food had brought her down to seven dollars, not counting any coins that might be buried at the bottom of her purse. And her bank's ATM was on the opposite side of Union Square. For a few fleeting seconds she considered putting her coat on and heading back out but quickly squelched the thought. Screw it! She would give Jimmie and the others their bonuses some time before New Year's. Sure, Jimmie could probably use the extra money for Christmas but that wasn't really her problem, was it? It wasn't like she'd asked him to have such a big family or to fritter away what funds he had feeding false hope to homeless kids.
She grabbed the food along with a cold Corona from the fridge and Macie's box and headed out into the living room, devoid of holiday decoration like the rest of the apartment. Landing on the sectional sofa, she set everything down on the coffee table except for the gift. Molly Jane hopped onto the cushion beside her and head-butted the box as if urging Starr to open it.
Starr gave the gift a good shake, and then used her keys to tear through the heavy brown paper. Lifting the oblong latched box lid, she saw an envelope lay atop a bed of Christmas red tissue paper. She broke the seal and slid the card out.
The printed front read, "Thinking of You on Your Christmas Birthday." This ought to be good. Inside bore a handwritten message:
Dear Starr, the note began.
Dear, my ass. Stuff it, Graham.
I know we didn't exactly part on the best of terms ...
Talk about an understatement.
Excerpted from A Suddenly Cinderella Christmas Carol by Hope Tarr, Alycia Tornetta, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2012 Hope Tarr. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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