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By Nancy Lee Naigle
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Nancy Lee Naigle
All rights reserved.
How could two pint-sized kids whip my well-controlled focus group into a frenzy in a matter of mere seconds?
"Let's all be quiet and settle down." Joy Holbrook kept her voice steady, but her stomach was knotted. She felt more like a teacher than a market research executive this morning. And the fact that MacDonald-Webber gave every job a cutesy name didn't help. Her executive position over "all things Christmas" had been tagged Red Suit Blitzen Bunch Lead. She was darned if she'd ever put that on her résumé, but despite the ridiculous title, this job was a step up from and a pay increase over her position at the stuffy old-school competitor she used to work for.
Silly title aside, life always came down to trade-offs, and this session was beginning to rank near the top of the list of challenging ones. Hopefully her last trade-off if she landed that promotion to Director of Focus Groups. The misbehaving little girl did a pirouette and tapped her chubby hand on one of the other children's heads as if she were playing a Swan Lake version of Duck, Duck, Goose. Her brother swiped a candy bar off the table, then raced around the room so fast that his sneakers squeaked against the floor.
"Now," Joy said, leveling her gaze on the two towheaded terrors. "Please. Take a seat." If the Weather Channel was looking for tropical storm names, Joy had two to recommend.
Lola and Richard.
Otherwise known as the boss's kids.
Lola rolled her eyes as her brother skidded across the floor and into one of the chairs with a thunk. She hesitated, but finally followed Richard's lead and sat down in a huff.
Joy's insides vibrated as if a thousand angry bees had taken up residence within her. She was running important focus groups, not the corporate babysitting service.
How could Margie do this to me again? Breathe. Smile. Just a few more questions and we're done. Joy powered through the final points, not allowing a single second's pause for the children to deviate from the plan. With one last count of raised hands, she was done.
"You did great!" She applauded the children and they joined in, smiling. "Thank you for sharing with me today." Joy lifted the top from a silver foil-wrapped box that had served as the centerpiece on the table, revealing a cache of candy bars. Squeals of delight filled the room as most of the kids reached into the box. No surprise, Richard grabbed another candy bar in each hand and even stuffed one into his pocket.
"My mom says candy bars make you fat," said a tiny redheaded girl.
Of all the kids at the table, she looked like she needed a candy bar the most. The little girl with the strawberry curls that tumbled wildly across her forehead, much like Joy's, had been the best-behaved child in the group. "Maybe your daddy would like one," Joy whispered quietly.
The little girl's bright blue eyes danced. "Thank you!" She pressed her finger to her lips, carefully deciding which one to select.
Most of the children had already unwrapped and begun to chomp on their treats.
Joy transferred the last data to her moderator's guide, then signaled for Renee to herd the little ones back out to their parents.
"You can come with me now," Renee said from the doorway. Chairs slid across the tile floor, sounding like an out-of-tune tuba followed by the crinkling of candy bar wrappers as the kids scampered toward the door on a sugar high.
Renee tipped her head toward Lola and Richard. "Sorry," she mouthed to Joy as she led the kids out of the room.
Joy shook her head. Poor Renee. Her chestnut hair, usually hanging long down her back, had been pulled into a knot with her pencil stuck through it — a sign that Renee was stressed, and, boy, did Joy know how that felt.
Joy's jaw ached from clenching her teeth so tightly. She stacked her things, trying not to lose her composure in front of whoever might be lingering in the observation room, where her team had been collecting data from the session. Her reflection in the two-way glass revealed a composed professional woman wearing a suit and heels, but underneath that guise, she felt ready to put a blitz on her own boss for another near mishap that had almost ruined her research. Was Margie that clueless, or was she out to sabotage her? Joy was really beginning to wonder.
A few moments later, Renee rushed back into the room. "I tried to tell Margie that we'd already checked everyone in. She just wouldn't take no for an answer." She spoke in a hushed whisper, glancing toward the mirrored wall, then grabbed a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle from a cabinet next to the table. "When I didn't get out of my chair, she just took them into the focus group herself!"
Testing holiday packaging for the nation's leading candy manufacturer, and one of MacDonald-Webber's biggest clients, was usually a quick process, but Joy's team had run into a few challenges. Not because there was a problem with the packaging. This time it was more of an internal problem. A Margie problem.
"It's not your fault." Joy turned her back to the mirrored glass. "I know how pushy Margie can be. And her kids are out of control. I'm just not used to that. It's days like this that make me thank goodness I never had children." She grimaced at how harshly that had come out. "No offense."
"None taken. My girls would never carry on like that. In public, anyway." Renee laughed. "All kids get a little wild now and then, but even at their worst, they are the best thing in life."
"I'm going to have to just take your word for that," Joy said, because after the past year of leading all the market research analytics completed by the Red Suit Blitzen Bunch for the under-twelve demographic, parenting wasn't something she could see herself signing up for.
Renee blasted a stream of cleaner across the surface of the chocolate-smudged table.
The smell of bleach replaced the sugary scent in the air. Joy pulled an arm's length of paper towels off the roll. With all the vigor of a gambler with a scratch-off ticket, Joy scrubbed away the last remains of the rough morning.
"At least it's done. Come on. Let's get out of here." Joy picked up her paperwork from the session and headed out the door with Renee right behind her.
Joy held her temper until she and Renee got into the elevator and the doors slid shut. "Margie has got some nerve." Joy hugged her paperwork to her chest. "If she hadn't done the same thing last week, we'd already have been finished. What is wrong with her?"
"She's clueless. Rumor has it she's the sister-in-law of one of the Webbers," Renee said, leaning against the wall of the elevator.
At least that would make sense. "I tried to politely explain that she was compromising the research the last time this happened. She either doesn't understand, or doesn't care. I'm not sure which is worse."
Joy wouldn't vent like this to just anyone, but she and Renee had become close over the past year. "We've finally got all the demographics covered for this test now. We'll deliver on time and on budget, despite Margie's interference."
"I was so worried her brats were going to ruin it."
Joy had been too. "We deserve a long lunch after that. Let's make it an early one. What do you say?"
"I'm so in." Renee tugged the pencil from her hair and let out a sigh.
The elevator doors opened on the eleventh floor. From here you could see the heart of D.C. MacDonald-Webber held office and meeting space on three floors of this building in the business district of the capital city. When Joy left Sonic Group in beautiful Northern Virginia to come to MacDonald-Webber, giving up her office with the view had been the hardest part.
Renee followed Joy through the maze of tall-walled cubes.
Joy placed her paperwork on the desk in her cubicle. The Christmas shopping list she'd started just yesterday during the back-to-back conference calls was covered in red and green Christmas doodles. She ripped the list from the notepad and showed it to Renee.
"At least my holiday list looks festive, even if I don't feel that way," Joy said. "We're down to just weeks before Christmas, and I haven't even begun to shop."
"An occupational hazard," Renee said. "A person can look at wrapped presents, new holiday products, and Santas dressed in every color of the rainbow for only so long and stay in the spirit."
Joy tucked the list in her purse. Her spirit had definitely dwindled. "I've been focused on this red and green holiday for the sake of market research for nearly sixteen months straight." She dropped into her chair, trying to push aside the aftermath of Lola and Richard's surprise appearance. "About six months too long to stay sane," she responded with a sigh. "We'd better change the subject."
"Fair enough. A friend of mine just took a job over at Sonic Group. Isn't that where you used to work?"
"Yes. For five years." Joy still missed her office with the view of lush, green Northern Virginia.
"She loves it there. Their offices sound amazing," Renee said with a lift of her brow.
"True, but they don't get the high-visibility work we get here. It's a tradeoff." Hopefully a good one. Joy had nailed the interviews for the new director position at MacDonald-Webber. She envisioned a big red bow on the door of the vacant office across the way — the one with the street view and access to the private outdoor terrace. She could totally see it. ...
Director of Focus Groups
Her name in block print letters on the frosted glass door. And the best part — her calendar filled with a nice balance of campaigns to manage, not just holiday-focused assignments, and she could get that stupid "Red Suit Blitzen Bunch" off her business cards. That would make for a Merry Christmas, indeed.
"Guess we have to take the good with the bad. Walls would be nice, though," Renee said, leaning on the edge of Joy's desk.
"Knock, knock." Margie Stokes's voice was a little too loud under regular circumstances, but for some reason when she did that singsongy "knock, knock," it made Joy grind her teeth.
Joy and Renee exchanged a subtle knowing glance.
"What brings you by?" Joy forced a smile, camouflaging her anger until she could find a polite way to address the sore subject of Margie dropping off her kids in Joy's focus group again.
"That little focus group this morning was over in a jiffy. Richard and Lola had so much fun. Didn't it work out perfectly that I happened to have them here with me?"
No time like the present. "Well, actually, Margie, we'd already recruited for that session. It was a bit of a problem."
There was a momentary flash of annoyance in Margie's expression. "What's a couple extra opinions? It's fine."
Joy held her tongue. If she let loose now, it wouldn't be good for anyone. Maybe the best part about the possible promotion wasn't the office with the view after all, but that she wouldn't report to Margie any longer.
Margie tugged on her bright pink suit jacket. The Chanel-like chains and pearls embellishing the pockets might look cute on a twentysomething girl, but on middle-aged Margie, they came across as a failed attempt to keep up with the younger crowd.
Margie fanned out a handful of glossy red and green tickets. "I knew you wouldn't want to miss out on Richard and Lola's Christmas pageant the week after next. I saved you the best tickets in the house — right next to me."
Margie was nearly sharkish about her approach to these things. Swimming in quietly. Cornering her prey. And with the seats right next to her, you couldn't even not show up. All she lacked was the ominous musical accompaniment.
Renee's lips pulled into a tight line. "I'm going to go get those reports."
"But don't you want —?" Margie spun and wedged herself between Renee and the opening to the cubicle.
"Oh no. I've got a family commitment. This time of year is so busy," Renee said, squeezing between Margie and the cubicle wall. "I'll check back later, Joy."
And there Joy sat. Captive.
"My Lola is the lead." Margie waved the tickets around like they'd grant admission to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. But they were for her kids' Christmas pageant, and Joy wasn't interested. She'd seen enough of Margie's wicked little wackadoodles this morning to last her a year.
"You must be so proud." Visions of Richard with chocolate smeared across his cheeks like a sugar-crazed Rambo flashed in Joy's mind.
Margie rattled on. "I had to practically force that new teacher to cast Lola in the lead. For heaven's sake, that woman was going to put her in the role of a tree. Can you imagine? My Lola. Standing there wrapped in burlap like a wooden trunk, holding felt leaves. No, ma'am." She rolled her eyes and blew out a breath that had her hair-sprayed-stiff bangs flying up, then settling all catawampus.
Margie's irritating eye roll — similar to Lola's — stabbed at Joy's sanity.
"There's so much going on —"
Margie narrowed her eyes. "It's a fund-raiser." Her words were clipped, almost curt; then Margie plastered a too-white smile on her face. "'Tis the season, and all that. I'll put you down to buy two. They're only a hundred apiece. I knew I could count on you."
Lucky me. "Great." Joy regretted ever pretending to be impressed by Margie's kids to establish common ground with her boss. It wasn't that Joy disliked children, but she was an only child herself and she'd known little to nothing about the under-twelve demographic before getting the dreaded Red Suit Blitzen Bunch assignment. Mom had always said that lies never paid off, and, boy, did Margie's Richard and Lola plucking Joy's every last nerve prove Mom right.
Margie counted out two tickets, but just before handing them over, she snapped her fingers. "I almost forgot. I need you to cover my meeting at Wetherton's this afternoon."
Joy's throat went dry. "At Wetherton's? The executive offices?" She'd led the Santa @ W event last year and had been invited to only one meeting at the flagship store. This was a big deal — her chance to really shine in front of MacDonald-Webber's biggest client. Hope filled her hammering heart.
"Yes. Just a quick update. Nothing fancy. I can't go. I have to take Lola to rehearsal."
Maybe good karma is making up for the debacle this morning. "Of course, I'll be happy to cover for you. What time?"
"You'll have to get a move on. They wanted me there around one o'clock." She twisted her wrist and checked her watch. "I meant to mention it earlier."
Joy could probably get there in a single bound on the energy coursing through her right now. Is it possible this is some kind of test before the final decision on the promotion? "I'm on it. I've got everything right here."
"Great. I knew you could handle it." Margie handed the tickets to Joy.
The purchase of the tickets was a little easier to bear now. "Wouldn't miss it." Another lie. Wonder what the penance for that one will be?
Ben Andrews parked his dark blue 4WD pickup in front of Mars Hardware on Main Street. Snippets of Christmas carols collided in an offbeat but beautiful noise from the neighboring stores as customers opened and closed their doors. From the looks of the hustle and bustle, business was booming in Crystal Falls.
Ben dropped the tailgate of his truck and dragged the scaffold ladder from the bed. He hoisted it over his shoulder, taking the time to check out the front window of Mars Hardware, which had been empty just yesterday.
Jason, the owner of the hardware store, had already been hard at work this morning. A wintry scene showcased a Mr. Snowman made from five-gallon paint buckets with blue spigot handles for eyes, holding the gloved hand of a snow kid who'd been fashioned out of regular paint cans with a red bucket turned upside down as a hat. Mrs. Snowman stood next to a Christmas tree as if decorating it while she watched the boys play nearby in the snowy backdrop. The tree was the same one Jason had created last year — made from hand-tied nuts, bolts, and all kinds of shiny gadgets into twenty-four six-foot lengths of hardware garland swept out to form the shape of a shiny metallic tree. A huge bow made of drywall tape spray-painted Carolina chrome graced the top.
Ben edged closer to the window, trying to figure out what Jason had used to create the snowy substrate beneath the snowman.
Popcorn? Well, not edible popcorn. Ceiling spray texture used to touch up those old popcorn ceilings. Genius. It really does look like snow, and it probably didn't take two bags to fill the whole window. A twenty-buck solution. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Christmas Joy by Nancy Lee Naigle. Copyright © 2016 Nancy Lee Naigle. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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