After being jilted the day before her Christmas wedding, Sara Jane hates the holidays. Holly and mistletoe are a painful reminder that happily-ever-after isn't for her. Now, this Christmas, her baby sister is getting married. Talk about adding insult to injury! Forced into faux Christmas joy while she helps plan the nuptials, Sara Jane just wants to escape to Athens, Greece--away from the judgmental stares and snickers of her family and friends. God, on the other hand, may have other plans. Maxwell Dixon has secretly loved Sara Jane since they were children. Like so many tragic childhood love stories, however, he was relegated to "friend status" long ago. But when Sara Jane needs him for moral support and to be a safe date at the wedding, Max decides it's time to show Sara Jane what love and Christmas are all about.
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Worst Christmas Ever
By Mallary Mitchell
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2016 Mallary Mitchell
All rights reserved.
Five years later ...
"So, how's that dress fitting? Good for Christmas Eve? You're not going to get stuck in it are you?" Alexa snorted.
After a groan, Sara Jane steeled herself. "Nice one, Lexa. Like I want that memory in my head today." She paused. "It's a bit loose. Maybe I'll put it in the washer and dryer."
Why couldn't she have gone to Athens for the holidays like she wanted? She'd attended college in Athens, Georgia, so she'd always wanted to visit Athens, Greece. What she didn't want was to be in this wedding. It was nearly five years to the day since her own Christmas debacle, and Christmases hadn't gotten better.
Four years ago, while helping her mother at the Miss Silver Belle contest, she had collided with a tray of eclairs. Dress ruined.
Three years ago, it had been grape juice on an ecru wool suit at the brunch celebrating her Masters degree in interior design.
Two years ago, a chocolate Santa had been left in the heated passenger seat of her mother's sedan on the way to the cantata. She'd sat on it, and didn't know until the church service was nearly over. Thank heaven the little foil wrapper was stuck on her taffeta-covered behind, too.
Sam had lovingly pointed it out during silent meditation before the morning prayer. She could still hear him. "Is that chocolate candy on Sara Jane's butt or did she sit in poop?"
She'd tried to muster her dignity as she swiped away the foil wrapper.
And one, one, short year ago, she had been wearing a lovely pair of platform pumps as she accepted an award for interior design. When her left heel had broken, the very kind presenter tried to stop her fall, but instead knocked over a poinsettia, freshly watered, and thus her gray pinstriped skirt and any remaining dignity had been lost.
Really, what could happen that would be worse than that? Sara Jane left the dressing room intent on inspecting the knee-length monstrosity that was her bridesmaid dress. What would you call it, guacamole green? She took two steps and tripped.
"Come on, Sara Jane. You can't do this." Lexa's snide comment sent a collective gasp among the bridesmaids hive.
Sara Jane did a wide armed reveal over Alexa's flip flops, which were haphazardly discarded on the floor of the bridal shop. "Lexa, are these your shoes?"
"Oh." Her sister bit her lip. "I am so, so sorry."
Contrition was most certainly not Lexa-like.
"Not to worry, ladies." Sara Jane smiled, flipped her long hair over her shoulder, and patted the fluffy overskirt. "No harm done." She stood with as much grace as she could muster and returned to change into her regular clothes. She had to meet Max at one, and it was already ten past twelve.
"See you tomorrow night." Sara Jane just wanted to get away from the bridal shop as quickly as possible.
"OK." Lexa's smile was a little too tight.
"You did tell her, didn't you?" The perky little maid of honor pursed her lips, waiting for Lexa's reply.
"Oh, no," her sister sighed the response. "Not yet. You go right ahead."
Classic Lexa avoiding something.
"Well," Mira cleared her throat. "I just wanted you to know that tomorrow night and for the wedding — you see I didn't know that my husband had any friends here. He's never mentioned ... it's just —"
"She's married to Brad." Lexa rushed out the words, but like the pain in ripping off a bandage, it really didn't make it feel better.
Sara Jane didn't care about Brad, but to have him as a guest at her sister's wedding ... Oh, no was understating it. "Brad ... Myers?" Her mouth hung open, and she placed one hand on her hip. Her sister's maid of honor was married to Brad Myers, and Lexa hadn't thought to mention it?
"You're angry." Mira and her tiny little voice seemed injured. The woman who hadn't been left with a billion wedding gifts to return, florists to pay, and a catered reception dinner complete with a five-tiered wedding cake that her mother used as the holiday meal, acted as if she had been done a disservice.
"No, Mira, I am not angry." Sara Jane managed a saccharine smile at this logic-impaired woman. It wasn't her fault that her sorry excuse for a man had the audacity to show his face in Sara Jane's town. Nor was it Mira's fault that Lexa hadn't mentioned it.
"Oh, good." She put a hand to her throat for a moment. "I was sweating it." She ran a hand a long her forehead in a pantomimed gesture. "Whew."
"Well, I really must be going. Really."
Lexa stood to hug her. "I'm sorry. So sorry. I didn't know how to tell you," she whispered.
"Why didn't you say anything before now?" Sara Jane hissed.
"Because he wasn't coming — until yesterday." Lexa replied.
"You could have warned me."
"Just wait to hate me 'til after the wedding," Alexa pleaded. Trust her sister to go all melodramatic.
"I don't know. That's an awful lot to ask." She paused. "It's kind of obvious that we're carrying on a conversation."
"Really?" Alexa had a panicked tone in her whisper.
"Yes. Let go of my neck. Now."
"And give Max my love." Lexa called as Sara Jane exited the shop.
* * *
Max's heart lightened the moment Alexa's car pulled into the driveway of the house he was building. They made a great team, and had for years. He was a contractor and she an interior designer. This was their eleventh house together, and they had the twelfth lined up already.
"So what have you got for me today?" he asked from the ladder where he was finishing the installation of a pendant light. Then, he saw her face.
Red and splotchy, tears would soon follow. He'd seen this before and nine times out of ten it involved her mother or her sister, or her mother and her sister.
Her sister was hardly the queen of sensitivity. He still didn't understand why Alexa had been insistent on a Christmas-themed wedding. Certainly she could understand that this might be difficult for Sara Jane.
"Hey, hey." He put his hands on her shoulders. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing really." She sighed. "It's just that Brad Myers is going to be a guest at my sister's wedding. His wife is Lexa's maid of honor. I guess that would actually make her a matron of honor."
He narrowed his eyes and assessed her expression. "You're serious."
She nodded. "But that's not what has me so irritated. Alexa didn't tell me. Granted, she supposedly just found out that he was coming, and I'm sure she's been very busy and all that. However, she didn't even mention that he was married to her maid of honor! The fact that he's now coming is just the cherry on top. I'm sure I could have found the time to call her if the roles were reversed. She waited until all her bridesmaids were around her, and then, bam."
He'd known Alexa as long as he'd known Sara Jane. And while Sara Jane asserted that Alexa wasn't mean, the girl was often thoughtless to the point of cruelty.
"And Riley is good with this?"
Now Sara Jane rolled her eyes. "Riley has had zero to do with the wedding planning. He could list Santa's reindeer quicker than Alexa's bridesmaids."
"Does your mom know?"
"Right. Like that would help the situation." She glanced up to him and gazed into his eyes. "It's not that I really care about Brad being there one way or the other; it's just the principle of the thing. That man left me two days before my wedding. I'm glad he did. Can you imagine what that marriage would have been like? Brad was self-centered, condescending, arrogant ..."
"Now Sara Jane, you're just listing his finer points, stop being so generous."
It felt good when she laughed aloud.
"Why didn't Lexa just tell me?"
"I'll be there with you tomorrow and Saturday. And if he starts anything, I've got your back."
"I know you do." She hugged him. "I am so blessed to have you. I never could work with him like I work with you. Or talk to him like I talk to you." Then, she paused as if she didn't mean to say all that. "You're my hero. You're my best friend."
And there it was. Friend.
"I've already decided next year I'm definitely going away for Christmas. I'm going somewhere quiet, exotic, somewhere away from family and everyone else."
"Hey! What about me? I'm part of this generic 'everyone else.'" He was fishing. He'd always cared for Sara Jane, now it was more than just the casual attraction he'd felt in high school. Working with her on an almost daily basis had been amazing. He'd fallen in love with her.
"You aren't part of 'everyone.'" Her anger had dissipated into a teasing tone. "You can come with me."
"I'll mark my calendar." He removed his phone, scrolled, and typed. "Next Christmas travel with Sara Jane." Max winked her way, and she looked down with a pleased blush highlighting her cheeks. Could he interpret that as an "I'm interested?"
She glanced back and caught him staring. "I am so sorry to be so unprofessional. Ready to talk about the house?"
Sara Jane walked over to examine the new flooring that had just gone in and then looked up at the installed light. He could tell she liked both.
"Did the tiles come in?"
"Not yet. They assure me the shipment is being delivered today. By the way, Chase says you're killing him with all these custom orders."
"He's complaining?" She ran her hand along the glassy granite countertop. She really loved design as much as he loved structure. When the Palmer family had offered him their renovation job it was contingent that he and Sara Jane were a package deal.
"No way. Chase says he likes the torture. He said thanks. He's had to hire another person, and it's all because of you."
"Me?" She gave a wry twist of her mouth. "Us. If you didn't do all this" — she gestured to the space — "I couldn't do all of this." She held her arms open to the kitchen. "The Palmers weren't so sure about these Shaker cabinets, but they loved the way the kitchen is shaping up. Mr. Palmer said to thank you for the photos." She ran her hand along his shoulder.
Max couldn't help but follow her as she walked around the island.
"I found some hardware that is going to be great in here. It's patterned after some vintage pulls from the twenties."
"You know the Palmers will love that."
She inspected the pendant light from her new vantage point.
"I love the way these pick up that tiny hint of green in the granite. And I can't wait to see how it comes together when they reflect on these tiles for the backsplash." She ran her hand along the suspended glass that surrounded and old-fashioned-looking bulb. "There are two more?"
He nodded. "Going up right after lunch. Speaking of which ... would you care to join me?"
She took a deep breath and offered her hand. "I would love to."
He turned her palm so he could kiss the back of her hand and was rewarded with just the hint of a giggle.CHAPTER 2
By the second rehearsal of Lexa's wedding program, Sara Jane had decided that if the bridesmaids were reindeer, she'd be Blitzen. She was dead last and escorted by Riley's fifteen-year-old brother, Carl — AKA Donner — who was about as animated as walking corpse. She was almost afraid he would turn to her and attempt to eat her brain. Then, she'd bite someone, and it would begin. Coming to a theatre near you: Zombie Christmas Wedding Party. The dresses would work perfectly.
"It's not an insult, you walking with Carl." Lexa had explained. "He just didn't want to walk with anyone he didn't know." Then, her sister had shrugged and pretended that she needed to be somewhere else.
Sara Jane longingly gazed at the pew where Max waited with her Aunt Jenna. She noted how a shadow of stubble looked good on him. It really wasn't fair that he could skip shaving and the effect was devastatingly handsome while if she skipped shaving it would be decidedly unattractive.
Max glanced up and caught her. His grin warmed her. He was every bit as gorgeous on the outside as the inside. Where was mistletoe when you needed it? She decided then and there, if presented with mistletoe she would kiss him.
Whoa! That was a romantic feeling. When had she begun to think of Max like that? She couldn't really say when. It was as if he'd always been there and she'd always felt the same. Dare she think it? She lov — liked him a lot.
"That's your cue, Sara Jane. People, you need to wait until the person in front of you gets —"
Blah, blah, blah. She could do this in her sleep. Max had to be saying something that was more interesting than this. Corbels, pocket doors, original hardwood. His eyes were all but glowing just as they did when he entered an old home or strategized over a new one.
She wished she could catch a word here and there as Max conversed with her aunt.
"Excuse me? Is someone whispering in the back?" Her mother stopped and glared around the room. "I am saying this once and only once ..."
"If only," Sara Jane muttered.
Max must have read her lips because he chuckled a little.
"Max?" Mom raised one manicured brow. "Was there something you'd like to add?"
"Just that you all are doing a fine job."
* * *
At the after-rehearsal meal, Max took his place at the long U-shaped table with Sara Jane at his side. They had been seated with Sam, who had called him the night of Sara Jane's stuck-in-the-dress incident and who was now ten; Carl, AKA 'zombie groomsman' according to Sara Jane; and Sara Jane's Great-aunt Sophie, who didn't like the ham and kept putting it on others' plates when they weren't looking.
While Sophie could be entertaining, her last comment was concerning her colonoscopy. He just wasn't ready for that conversation.
Max counted the moments until the final goodbyes were said so they could leave. His employees were already on Christmas vacation, but he wanted to get over to the site so he could do a couple more things before shutting down for the holiday. Maybe Sara Jane would want to accompany him. Her tiles had arrived.
They wheeled out the groom's cake and he decided that a plastic bride dragging a groom by the coat tails was insulting.
Brad laughed as the cake passed him.
Max took particular offence, since Brad had been reluctant to marry Sara Jane. Normally Max wasn't one for violence, but as white hot anger bubbled, he knew he needed to pray for forgiveness.
Sara Jane missed the laughter since she was playing yet another round of pass the ham with her elderly aunt. He put his arm on the back of her chair and refused the cake as a server offered the offending confection. He could think of many other "better" uses for it. Again, he needed to pray.
Finally, couples started to disperse. He placed his arm around Sara Jane's waist and ushered her toward the door. How could Lexa and Augusta act as if the man who had so greatly disrespected Sara Jane weren't here?
"So nice you could come tonight, Max." Augusta leaned in for an air kiss. "I would ask you to cut that hair for the wedding, but — excuse me for a moment."
He waited for the expected "big ears" comment as she waved farewell to someone. She patted him on the cheek instead. "That style suits you."
He did a double take and stepped into the doorway of the country club as Sara Jane gave her mom a parting hug.
"Mistletoe!" An overly loud bridesmaid pointed over his head as Sara Jane took a step his way. "Hey, Sara Jane, if you don't do something about that, I will."
Sara Jane stepped forward almost shyly. She looked up and winked. "Pucker up, pal."
Friend. Pal. She was killing him.
She gave him a quick, chaste kiss.
Oh, no. She wasn't getting away with that little display so easily.
"Not so fast, Sara Jane. You're under the mistletoe, too." This opportunity didn't come around every day, and he would make the most of it.
After her initial surprise, Sara Jane wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Hey, get outta here you two." Riley gave him a polite shove. "That's my mistletoe."
Max put up a good natured protest as Sara Jane adjusted the shawl she'd worn in lieu of a coat.
While December nights in Winterville, Georgia were often on the warmer side, tonight the temperature had dropped well below freezing.
He pulled off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders.
"Thanks," she murmured. She walked silently to his truck and hurried to open her door and climb in the cab.
Five miles down the road she still hadn't spoken.
"OK. What gives?"
"I really had a lovely time."
"I did too. And?"
"About the kiss ..."
"I've been wanting to do that." He admitted quickly before he let his brain convince him to keep his mouth shut.
"Since when?" She pulled his coat closer, and he turned up the heat.
"I don't know. It's just more and more lately you've been on my mind. I miss you when you're not around. I'm glad Riley put that mistletoe up there."
Excerpted from Worst Christmas Ever by Mallary Mitchell. Copyright © 2016 Mallary Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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