Unfortunately, Krissy’s been roped into filling in for a sick elf in the local holiday musical extravaganza. With a demanding director, backstage gossip, and two men in fierce competition for the starring role, it isn’t all sweetness and Christmas lights. Then a murder puts a stop to the production, and Krissy is faced with a pageant of suspects.
Could her ex-boyfriend, a fellow elf, really be the culprit as the police are claiming? Or will the actor playing Santa be trading his red suit for an orange jumpsuit? When her behind-the-scenes investigation starts getting dangerous, the only thing Krissy really wants is to make it to Christmas dinner alive. But first she’ll have to finish wrapping up this case . . .
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It lurked beneath the rectangle of brightly colored paper. A tail swished back and forth, causing a faint crinkling sound. Though I couldn't see them, I knew there to be two wide, yellow eyes peering out at me from beneath the nearest edge. The hairs on the back of my neck rose as the entire paper vibrated.
"Don't you even think about it," I said, hiding the ribbon behind my back. It was to be the finishing touch on my gift for Dad, though a part of me knew it was already a loss. "I knew I should have locked you up."
Misfit's tail swished once more, and then went still.
I held my breath, nervous anticipation causing my stomach to flip uneasily.
And then he attacked.
I screamed as the orange ball of fur tore from beneath the wrapping paper, eyes intent on the edge of ribbon he could just barely see from around me. Self-preservation caused me to reflexively toss the ribbon across the room, knowing if I didn't, I might lose a hand or two.
Misfit veered off course, eyes completely black, and snagged it from the air. He rolled once with it, slammed into the couch, and then tore out of the living room, toward the bedroom, ears pinned back, ribbon clamped firmly between his teeth. I'd have to retrieve it from him before he swallowed it, but for now, he could have it.
I rose and took a trembling breath before breaking into a smile. As any cat owner knows, there's nothing more terrifying than a kitty in full-on psycho play mode — as well as nothing cuter. My admittedly soft flesh was no match for his needlelike claws and pointy teeth, which accounted for the fear. If I hadn't been so focused on wrapping, I might have spent a few minutes playing with him. Perhaps I would once I finished.
My phone rang as I was about to start cleaning up, causing me to jump. I snatched the phone off the floor where it sat beside a pair of gifts I'd wrapped for Misfit before he realized what I was doing. Dad's gift was the only one that remained, but at least it was wrapped. I planned on doing the rest of my shopping later, before my flight back home to Pine Hills from California.
A quick glance at the screen told me it was my dad, James Hancock, calling. I grinned and answered with a chirpy, "Hello!"
There was a hesitation to his voice, which I ignored as I picked up the extra wrapping paper bits I'd cut away. "I'm just finishing up with my gift wrapping and then I'll be all packed. Misfit is making it harder than it should be." I laughed. "I can't wait to see you."
There was a long pause as he cleared his throat. "So, about that ..." This time he coughed. "I was thinking that maybe you could spend this Christmas with Will. In Pine Hills."
I blinked, confused. "But we always do Christmas at your house."
"I know, but, well ..." He sucked in a deep breath and let it out. "Something has come up."
"Is everything okay? You're not sick, are you?" I felt faint. If Dad was sick, I needed to get out there! "I can fly out tonight," I said, determined. "I'm sure I can change my flight."
"No, no, it's nothing like that." Dad chuckled, though it didn't set my mind at ease. He was all alone in California, Mom having died years ago. And since I moved away, he had no remaining family to spend the holidays with. "It's just ..."
I waited, but he didn't continue. My mind conjured all sorts of horrible images better suited to Halloween than Christmas. Could he be calling me from a hospital bed? Or did the house burn down thanks to a freak electrical accident when he'd plugged in the tree? There might be nothing left to go home to!
I couldn't take his silence any longer. "What's going on?" I asked, voice pitched a few octaves higher than normal in my worry.
Dad sighed. "Remember when I told you I was thinking of dating again?"
I frowned. That wasn't what I'd expected him to say. "Yeah?"
"Well, there's this woman. Laura." He sounded a lot like I did every time I mentioned Will: sort of dreamy, and a little goofy. "She asked me to spend Christmas with her this year. She's going to the Swiss Alps, and well ... I'd like to go."
My mind was still trying to catch up with the fact Dad had started seeing someone, so it took me a few long seconds to respond. I mean, I knew he was looking to date again, but some part of me never thought he'd actually do it.
"Laura?" was all I could think of to say.
"She's great." I could hear the smile in his voice. "She likes to travel, hence the Alps. She says it's perfectly safe. We'll be staying in a cabin, not climbing the mountains or adventure seeking. No camping in the cold for these old bones." He laughed, though he still sounded nervous.
"You want to go to the Alps?" I asked, still a few beats behind.
"If you think it's a bad idea, Buttercup, I can cancel." He didn't sound like he wanted to, but he'd always been willing to do anything I asked to make me happy. This was no exception.
Which, of course, made me feel like a royal jerk for sounding as if I might disapprove of his date, even a little. "I think it's a great idea," I said. I might have forced the cheer a bit, but that didn't mean I wasn't happy for him. I was thrilled he was finally moving on with his life. I was just bummed I wouldn't get to see him this holiday season. "You caught me off guard, is all."
"I just started seeing her recently," he said. "I know it's short notice. We leave late tonight, if you can believe it. I think she waited because she didn't think I'd want to go." A pause before, "If you want, I could ask her if it would be all right to invite you along. I'm sure Laura would be okay with it."
"No, that's not necessary. You two should have fun together. I can stay here and spend Christmas with Will. Besides, I think he was a little upset I'd planned on leaving, so it works out."
"Are you sure?" Dad sounded both pleased and a little heartbroken, which made me feel better about my own feelings. I wasn't the only one who was going to have to get used to things being different this year.
"I'm sure." A thump in my bedroom reminded me Misfit had a piece of ribbon. "I'd better go. Cat's causing some trouble. Need to rein him in before I head in to work."
"I'll talk to you later, Buttercup. And ... thanks."
"Have fun," I said and hung up, feeling a smidge melancholy. I liked the idea of spending Christmas with Will, but I'd miss Dad something fierce. I was afraid it just wouldn't be the same without him.
I hurried into the bedroom to find Misfit in the corner, ribbon wrapped around him like he was a fuzzy, wiggly gift. He'd somehow gotten tangled in it to the point where he couldn't get out. He glared at me as if it was all my fault.
"That's what you get," I told him as I untangled him. He made a swat at the ribbon as I pulled him free. I yanked it back and stuffed it into my pocket where he couldn't reach. "Looks like we're going to spend Christmas together this year." Normally, Vicki watched him while I was gone. He'd stay with her and his littermate, Trouble. From what Vicki tells me, they both manage to live up to their namesakes.
I returned to the living room and cleaned up before Misfit found something else to run off with. I put all three gifts into the spare bedroom, closing the door behind me so Misfit wouldn't get in and unwrap them early. I'd have to mail Dad's gift to him at some point, but that could wait.
Once everything was packed up, I pulled on my coat, grabbed my purse and keys, and then headed out the door, to my car.
Winter was here, but had yet to dump snow on us. There'd been a light dusting a few days ago, but it was already long gone. I hadn't paid any attention to the weather reports to know if a storm was coming since I hadn't planned on being in town to see it. As I got into my car, I mentally reminded myself to check the weather at the same time I canceled my flight.
My Focus coughed a few times before starting. I gently stroked the dash, murmuring thanks as it started to warm. I so didn't need to be car shopping this time of the year, not with all the gifts I still needed to buy. I'd planned on shopping for Vicki, Will, and the rest of my friends while in California. I could get things there I wouldn't be able to find here. I added a shopping trip to my list of things I needed to do as I fished out my phone and called Will.
"Hi, Krissy," he said by way of answer. "You caught me just in time. I'm about to head back in to work."
I glanced at the dashboard clock and noted it was a lot closer to noon than expected. I wasn't going to be late to work, but I'd be cutting it close.
"I won't keep you," I said. I didn't like driving and talking, but wanted to call him now before he made plans. "I wanted to let you know that it looks like I'll be in town this year for Christmas."
"I thought you were flying back home?"
"Dad's got a date," I said, still not quite believing it. "I'm staying here. If you have time, I would love to get together for Christmas. I know you might have already made plans, but if you could slip me in ..."
There was a pause and the rising sound of voices in the background. "I didn't really think much about it," Will said. "I'd love to have you over. We can solidify our plans later. I really need to go."
"Okay, that's fine. I'll talk to you later."
I hung up, feeling only a little better. He had sounded distracted, but I chalked it up to the time of year. People did dumb things in the cold, and since Will Foster was a doctor, it was his job to fix the results. His waiting room was probably full of people who'd decided to take a dip in an icy pond, or slipped on some ice while walking to their car. Hopefully, his job wouldn't get in the way of our Christmas together. I was hoping we could make it special this year, now that I was going to get to spend time with him.
I parked a few blocks from Death by Coffee, the bookstore café I co-owned with my best friend Vicki Patterson. I made sure I was suitably bundled, and then hurried down the sidewalk to the store. The air temperature wasn't horrible, but the wind was bitingly cold. It stung my eyes and my nose and ears were already throbbing. It would be a great day for coffee — if you were willing to brave the cold to pick some up.
Warm, coffee-scented air blasted into me as soon as I opened the door. I all but floated behind the counter, shedding my coat along the way, to the pots. Half the seats were taken by customers whose hands were wrapped tightly around their hot drinks. A few more were browsing the bookshelves upstairs. I poured myself a cup of eggnog flavored coffee, and instead of adding my usual chocolate chip cookie, I used the house made eggnog creamer instead. I took a sip, and just about melted into the floor.
"How's business today?" I asked as Vicki came out of the back room, a freshly made batch of eggnog in hand.
"Good," she said, cheerily. "Both the eggnog and flavored coffees are a hit." We'd just started selling them that very day. "I can hardly keep up with the demand."
I beamed in pleasure. It had been my idea to go the eggnog route this year, including regular old eggnog to our menu for the holiday season. Last year, we'd tried spiced coffees and teas. While they sold okay, they weren't as popular as we'd hoped they'd be.
"How does it feel to be on your last day of work for the year?" she asked, leaning against the counter. She didn't mean to make it look seductive, but somehow, it did. Vicki was just one of those people who brightened up any room, no matter the circumstances.
"About that," I said, glancing up the stairs to where Jeff Braun, one of our employees, was ringing up a book sale. "I'm not going."
"Did something happen?"
"No. Well, yeah, kind of." I shrugged. "Dad has a date. I'm staying here."
"Oh!" Vicki's eyes lit up like I'd just told her she'd won the lottery. "What do you know about his date?"
Another shrug. "Her name is Laura and she likes to travel. They're going to the Swiss Alps."
"Really?" Vicki got a far-off look in her eye. "That sounds awesome."
"I'm sure it will be," I said, some of the melancholy slipping back into my voice. "But it does mean I'm going to be in Pine Hills this year, so if you want to rework the schedule to fit me in, I'm willing."
Vicki came back to the here and now with a shake of her head. "No, you should take the time off. Even though you aren't leaving town, you could use the break."
"It's going to be weeks!" I normally spent a little over two weeks in California. It was like a mini vacation, one I desperately needed at the end of a long year. "I'll just be sitting around my house, so it would be no big deal," I said, though I was hoping I'd be doing a lot more than that. It all depended on Will's work schedule and how much time he'd be able to wiggle me in for. Owning his own practice took a lot of him, more than I was sometimes comfortable with.
I sighed and wondered how best to spend our newfound time together. Maybe next year Will and I could take a trip, see the world. I'd seen a few of the fifty states, but had yet to travel anywhere outside them.
But this year ... I was already envisioning candlelight dinners and hot bubble baths.
Vicki was looking at me with a huge smile on her face as I came back to the present.
"What?" I asked.
"That look on your face." She laughed a good-natured laugh. "You were practically swooning where you stood."
"I was not!" I blushed, covering it up by gulping some coffee. "I was just thinking."
"It's okay. I have some pretty steamy plans this year, too." She winked at me and then floated to the register to take an order.
Thoroughly embarrassed, I carried my coat and coffee into the back room. I flung on an apron, fanned myself off (what can I say? It was a pretty steamy fantasy), and then headed out front to begin the long day at work.
Or at least I would have, but I was verbally assaulted the moment I stepped behind the counter.
"It's terrible!" Rita Jablonski wailed, hurrying over to me. "It's a travesty!"
Used to her overstating pretty much everything, I didn't drop into an immediate panic. The town gossip had a tendency to overreact. I've done a good job of late taking it in stride and not getting annoyed with her like I used to. It was just one of Rita's quirks.
"What happened?" I asked as I checked the cookie case to find it looking a little spare.
"Mandy is sick and I don't know what we're going to do! There's only two weeks until the big day and now with her out of commission, we're one short!"
I tried to follow, but she was being so vague, I could only ask, "Mandy?"
"Mandy Ortega. It's her diet, I tell you. She eats all the wrong things and it's impacted her immune system to the point that any bit of stress and she comes down sick. I knew when she was cast it was a bad idea."
A lightbulb went off in my head. "She's in a play?"
"Of course she is," Rita said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "We have it every year, dear." She stepped back and looked me up and down. "You know, you could probably fit into her costume."
This time, instead of a lightbulb, alarm bells were going off. "No, I don't think so."
But it was already too late. Rita was on a roll and there was nothing that would stop her. "She was an elf in our Christmas production," she said, speaking right over me. "Not a big role, mind you. You wouldn't have to learn many lines at all. And every time you do speak, it will be a group effort, so if you flub it, it won't be that big of a deal."
"I really don't think I ..."
"The costume should fit. Your diet doesn't seem to be much better than Mandy's, so there's a risk there."
"There's only two weeks until the show," she went on, oblivious. "Practices have ramped up, so there is one every night, right up until show night. That shouldn't be too much of an issue for you."
"Rita, I don't know anything about acting in a play."
"If there was someone else, you can bet I'd ask them, but since there isn't ..." She shrugged as if saying it was out of her hands.
"What about Vicki?" I asked, grabbing hold of her as she came down the stairs. "She's done plays before. She'd know what to do."
Rita took one look at Vicki and laughed. "Weren't you listening? We only have one spare costume. There's no time to have another made and you're the perfect size! She'd practically swim in Mandy's getup."
I knew I should have taken it as an insult, especially since Rita weighed more than me, but I was too panicked to care.
"You should do it, Krissy," Vicki said. "It would be a great experience."
Gee, thanks, I thought. Betrayed by my best friend.
"Practices start at six at the community theatre. I'll let Lawrence know you'll be coming."
Excerpted from "Death by Eggnog"
Copyright © 2017 Eric S. Moore.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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