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A Coventry Christmas
By Becky Cochrane
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Becky Cochrane
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I hate Christmas," Keelie Cannon said, flinging herself into a chair at the table in Bennigan's where she'd agreed to meet her friends. She blew her ash-blond bangs out of her blue eyes and reached under the table to rub her ankles, looking around at the noisy restaurant. She'd have preferred a quieter place, but because of her schedule, she'd chosen convenience over atmosphere.
"How can you hate Christmas?" Evan asked, signaling their server, who hurried over to take Keelie's drink order.
"It's the most wonderful time of the year," Holly agreed. "It's also my birthday."
"Vodka martini," Keelie muttered. "Two olives. I don't care what brand of vodka as long as it gets here fast." As the server turned away, Keelie yelped, "Wait!" The woman turned back with a puzzled look. "I can't drink. I have to go back to work in an hour. Just bring me a Coke, please." The server nodded and again tried to walk away, but Keelie said, "No, wait. I don't need the calories."
"Or the caffeine," Holly said.
"Just water," Keelie said. "I'm sorry. I'm as bad as my customers. I promise not to bitch about my food. And I'll leave a good tip."
"Don't worry," the server said. "I've never spat in anyone's food yet."
"Bring her the martini," Evan said firmly. Afterthe server walked away without further protest from Keelie, Evan continued his pep talk. "I'm all about Christmas spirit. Tinsel, mistletoe, Christmas carols. Exchanging presents. Chestnuts roasting on an-"
"You two should join a choir," Keelie said. "Walk a mall in my shoes. Which reminds me. I'm sorry I had to make you come to the Galleria. I'm sure parking was awful."
"It's okay," Holly assured her. She pointed toward the restaurant windows that overlooked the indoor ice rink and said, "I brought the boys with me. They're skating with their sitter, and she's taking them to the food court for Happy Meals after. They're thrilled to have a Mc- Night, so it was the perfect choice."
"You know I'm all about the shopping," Evan said. "Since I'm always off on Monday, I spent the whole day buying presents. I'll be ready for Christmas way early."
"I won't," Keelie said. "Everybody can count on books from me this year, because I'll never get enough time away from that damn bookstore to shop for gifts."
"I suppose if Buy The Book is really busy, it's a good sign for the economy," Holly said.
"Do you always look on the bright side?" Keelie smiled, as much at the martini that was set in front of her as to take the sting out of her words.
"Are you guys ready to order?"
"We're waiting for one more person," Holly said. When they were alone again, she said, "You know Ivy will be late. These days, she never seems to leave the office on time."
"She's probably stuck in traffic," Evan said.
"If she's too late, I'll miss her," Keelie said. "Charlotte wasn't happy about staying longer so I could come to dinner."
"Tell us about your awful customers and why they have you drinking on your dinner break," Evan said.
"A preschooler climbed a pyramid of books on Egypt and brought it crashing down on top of her. Two boys turned themselves into Jedi knights by using rolled maps for light sabers. We had an upchucker in Children's. I had to explain repeatedly that we are not Houston's renowned bookstore, Murder By The Book. Although I've had maps printed up for their store, which saves me a lot of time giving directions. All in all, a typical day. Just before I came to meet y'all, I got stuck with a real winner. Nothing pleased her. 'The associates weren't helpful,'" Keelie mimicked the customer's tone, "so she demanded to see a manager. Charlotte was still cleaning up puke, so I took the customer, who bitched because I'm only an assistant manager. I gave her Rodney's card if she wants to call him tomorrow. But get this. The problem was that she doesn't like dust jackets. 'They're tacky and cheap looking. Don't you have any leather-bound books? I can't give these as gifts.' So I explained that we're a chain store; we don't carry those kinds of books. I told her about all the wonderful specialty bookshops in Houston where she might find gifts that would suit her. I even offered to write down their names and addresses. When she realized that one of them is a collectible book dealer, she shrieked that she couldn't give her friends used books. She thinks of first editions and rare books as used!"
"What an idiot," Evan commiserated.
"She probably will call Rodney, and he'll act like it was all my fault and give me another lecture on customer service, as if I haven't been doing this job without his guidance for six years." Keelie sighed. "Remember when I used to like my job?"
"You still do," Evan said. "It's just that evil Rodney."
"And that you're tired," Holly added.
"Rodney's all worked up because some shrinkage guy is coming from Corporate in New York. Apparently, shoplifting is on the rise in our store. Corporate thinks it's employee theft. Right. Like anyone who works there has time to figure out what books they'd like to steal. Instead, do you think maybe Rodney shouldn't have ignored my warning not to put the art books right by the exit? The most expensive books in the store. And our loss prevention system is a big fraud-those sensors don't really do anything. The cameras in the ceiling? Connected to nothing. It's all just for show. A deterrent, they call it. We're too understaffed and busy to watch that section constantly, so it's the easiest thing in the world to walk out the door with a two-hundred-dollar coffee-table book."
"I know where I'm doing the rest of my Christmas shopping," Evan said.
"Me, too," Holly said brightly.
Keelie sighed again and said, "You'd better hurry before there's nothing left to steal except books on drawing caricatures or whittling."
"My shopping list is full of people who are all about working with wood," Evan said.
"You should have been made manager, Keelie," Holly said. "It's so unfair. The employees respect you, you've worked your way up, and you've been devoted to Buy The Book for all these years."
"Can I use you for a reference when Rodney fires me?"
"He wouldn't dare," Evan said. "You're bulletproof, like me. Cleo can never fire me from the salon because I know where all the bodies are buried."
"The salon," Keelie moaned. "I wish I had time to come in for a cut. Look at my bangs!"
"I've been trying not to," Evan said sympathetically.
"I know. They're awful. I'll stop bitching any hour now. At least I have Christmas Eve to look forward to."
"Why? Did Rodney give you time off? Are you going home?" Holly asked.
"No way would he give me enough time off to get to Georgia and back. The days after Christmas are just as busy with returns and exchanges. No, I love Christmas Eve because it's not only a short workday, but that's when we get the desperate shoppers. Especially the husbands. They'll buy anything, and they're thrilled just to find it. Last year, one of my coworkers gave me a stuffed pig that snorted 'Jingle Bells.' I kept it with me when I reassured the customers standing in line that they'd be out of there in ten minutes. You wouldn't believe how many people offered to buy that pig and for how much."
"Sounds like a good way to pick up extra cash," Evan said.
"No shit. I could just fill the office with crap from my apartment, take it on the floor one item at a time, and make more on Christmas Eve than the store pays me in a week!" Keelie turned to Holly and said, "Subject change. Why did you want to get together? It sounded important."
"I don't know if it's important," Holly said. "I just want some backup because I have to tell Ivy-"
"Shhh," Evan warned. "Here she comes."
Keelie and Evan laughed as Ivy stopped short at their table and stared at Holly with dismay. They were both wearing black slacks, black sweaters, and a single gold necklace. Both of them had their auburn hair brushed back into ponytails, and they were wearing identical black boots.
"Oops, you did it again," Keelie said.
"After so many years of refusing to dress alike, why do we always end up in the same outfit now?" Ivy asked, shaking her head at Holly.
"Just that twin connection, I guess," Holly said. "But you look great!"
Ivy took the empty chair and said, "We look like Robert Palmer's backup singers."
"If Holly would let me highlight her hair like yours-"
"No!" both women simultaneously interrupted Evan.
"We have to have something that's different," Ivy said. "Everyone promised we'd look less alike as we got older, but they lied."
"Anyway, I don't need high-maintenance hair," Holly said. "Moms don't have time for that."
"I saw the boys skating," Ivy said. "They looked so adorable. Who's with them?"
"The most responsible babysitter in Pearland," Holly said. "Melissa."
"Have y'all ordered?"
"We were waiting for you," Evan said.
After their server came back, took their orders, then brought Ivy a Guinness, Keelie said, "I think Holly was just about to tell us something." When Holly frowned at her, she quickly said, "Or maybe not."
Evan launched into one of his you'll-never-believe-what-happened-at-the-salon stories, and Keelie sat back and sipped her martini while she studied him.
Although Evan Hammett was thirty-five, he didn't look seven years older than Keelie. His blond hair was styled in a faux hawk, a style Keelie had never really understood, but it worked for Evan. At six feet, Evan was too tall to be waifish, but he was thin. Keelie thought it suited him, especially his angular face. When he smiled, deep lines formed on either side of his mouth. Evan said they were wrinkles in training and swore he was going to start Botoxing, but Keelie knew he wouldn't. Evan was only too aware that everyone loved his smile lines.
It was chance that had brought Keelie and Evan together, but it was Evan's extroverted personality that made them friends. Keelie had always been a little bashful about meeting new people. More than three years before, on a rare Saturday off of work, she'd gone alone into Houston's artsy Montrose district and wandered in and out of antique shops on Westheimer. The July heat had been unbearable. On a whim, she walked into a salon and asked the first stylist she saw to shave her head, only half kidding.
Evan had said, "Girl, you do not need new hair. You need new air. Sit in front of the AC until I finish these lowlights, then we'll talk."
They began a conversation that was still going years later. Evan had a way of turning anything into an occasion, whether it was a trip to the grocery store or an impromptu pizza party. He made Keelie feel funnier than she was, but he also had a serious side. She could talk to him about anything, and on the rare occasions when he was in a funk, it made her feel good to be an equally sympathetic listener for him.
Keelie snapped out of her reverie when she heard Ivy ask, "What was Keelie saying that you wanted to talk about?"
"Just everybody's Christmas plans," Holly said casually. "I really should book time at the salon, Evan. I need an overhaul. Hair cut, legs waxed-"
"Eyebrows waxed," Evan said.
Holly picked up her knife, tried to see her reflection, and asked, "Are they terrible?"
"I didn't really notice until I saw Ivy's," Evan said.
"That's just Ivy," Keelie said. "She even looks good in August, and nobody manages that in Houston."
"It's not the heat; it's the humidity," the other three intoned on cue.
"You're like our long lost triplet," Ivy said to Evan. "I think we could all use a day of beauty. A Christmas treat for ourselves."
"Not unless Evan can work on me at the bookstore," Keelie said. "Oh, God, will January ever get here?"
"Poor lamb," Ivy said. "Is it awful?"
"I've already bored them with my tragic retail dramas," Keelie said. "Be thankful you missed it."
"Even though you can't be home with your family, you can spend Christmas with the Johnsons, like last year," Ivy said. "Mom will just happen to remember a box of ornaments in the attic, so we'll all get our chance to finish trimming the tree. Granny will be there driving Mom crazy. Holly's boys will get way too many presents, and Evan will make a pig of himself at dinner."
"But it won't be like last year," Holly said. They all looked at her, hearing the sadness in her voice. "Everything's different."
"It's your first Christmas without your father," Keelie said. "That's got to be hard."
"And Dave's stuck in Scotland alone, instead of being with me and our sons. And last year, Mark was with us."
"That last one is no great loss," Ivy said crisply. She always cut off any discussion of her ex-fiancé. "It'll be hardest on Mom. We'll have to put on our happy holiday faces. As much as I miss Daddy, I know it's worse for her."
Holly winced and said, "That's sort of why I wanted us to get together tonight." When none of them said anything, she went on. "Scotty and Carla want Mom to visit them in Hawaii for the holidays."
Keelie closed her eyes, trying to envision Christmas where there was more high tide than yule tide. As she pictured hot surfers and men sizzling on the beach, she knew she could enjoy a Hawaiian Christmas in a whole different way than Mrs. Johnson would with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild.
"Mom will never go to Hawaii at Christmas," Ivy said, as if it were settled. There was a lull in conversation when their food arrived. After Ivy took a few bites of salad, she realized that Holly was watching her. She finished chewing, swallowed, and asked, "Why are you staring at me?"
"Although I want to spend Christmas with Mom, especially since Dave's away, I think it might be good for her to make the trip," Holly said. "She always sees us, and she's spent every Christmas with my boys. If she goes to Hawaii, she'll get to see her new granddaughter, and Scotty and Carla would love to have Christmas with her since they're so far away from home. Plus, I think Christmas will be really sad for her without Daddy here."
"No matter where she is, Christmas will be rough," Ivy agreed. "But if she's here, at least she'll have the comfort of knowing that our traditions will go on. And we have so many memories we can share. Keelie and Evan will understand if we all get a little emotional." Ivy glanced at Keelie, who nodded. "Sometimes keeping up our routines helps us deal with grief."
Holly bit her lip, then looked at Evan and asked, "What do you think?"
"Do you always need a man's opinion?" Ivy asked sharply. "Just drop it, Holly. Mom will be with us at Christmas like always."
Keelie and Evan exchanged an uncomfortable look, and Evan said, "I think you both should let your mother do whatever she wants and support her decision."
The twins glowered at each other, but any possibility of further conversation was cut off when half of the Bennigan's staff began clapping their way through the restaurant, stopping at a nearby booth to sing "Happy Birthday" to a little girl who looked completely humiliated. Keelie watched in silent sympathy-she hated that kind of fanfare, too-then groaned when the girl's face took on a greenish tinge.
"Another upchucker," she said as the girl's mother grabbed her hand and led her toward the bathroom. "I can't believe she didn't wait to do that in my store."
On her bus ride home after finishing her shift and closing Buy The Book, Keelie thought about the strain between Holly and Ivy. Since Ivy's breakup with Mark, she'd kept her distance from the rest of them, citing long hours at work or plans she'd made with other friends. Even when she was with them, she never seemed like herself. But in all the time Keelie had known the sisters, she'd never heard them argue. She'd assumed it was because they were twins. Keelie and her own sister, who was two years younger, frequently had big emotional blowouts with each other, but they both knew they'd always make up.
Her bus stop was only a half block from her landlords' driveway, and as tired as she was, it still lifted Keelie's spirits to walk past the Atwells' flower beds to her apartment. Although it was December, because of Houston's climate, the roses, bougainvillea, firecracker ferns, and alyssum were all in bloom. Fat blossoms dotted the camellia trees. She broke off a sprig of rosemary and crushed it between her fingers, inhaling its pungent aroma.
Excerpted from A Coventry Christmas by Becky Cochrane Copyright © 2006 by Becky Cochrane. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When Keelie Cannon visits Coventry for Christmas, she gets more surprises than she bargained for, from a fractured ankle to a friendly veterinarian. It's a fun, lighthearted Christmas story with a happy ending.