A Merry Little Christmas
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Merry Connor is struggling to feed her two children, pay heat bills and fix her secondhand car.
Though she’s barely making it financially, life is good. That is, compared to two years ago when she lost everything—thanks to her lying, deceiving ex-husband. She’s come a long way since then and doesn’t intend to look back. Even so, it’ll be a long time before she trusts anyone with her heart again.
Tony Lewis hasn’t had a merry Christmas since his wife and son perished in a car collision three years ago.
The holidays are lonely without his family, but his heart begins to mend when he meets Merry Connor and her two rambunctious kids. He can’t stop thinking about her and yearns to get closer to her. Will she turn him away once she learns of his connection to her ex-husband? (4.8 Stars on Amazon)
Tony stood in the doorway of Sam’s Bar and scanned the boisterous crowd of happy-hour revelers, looking for the scrooge in the room—Neal Carter. This meeting wouldn’t resemble anything close to a social call, but he had to go through with it because he needed to set the record straight about Merry Connor and move on. Convincing Neal to do the same would be like trying to drain Lake Superior with a garden hose, but at this point, he didn’t care. He simply wanted to end this ridiculous ruse and leave.
He spied Neal sitting in a corner booth, wearing jeans and a green and white Minnesota Wild hockey jersey, relishing a plate of beef nachos. He squared his shoulders and crossed the room, wishing he’d delivered the news over the phone as he’d originally planned to do instead of agreeing to meet for a drink. Silently, he slid into the booth, keeping his jacket on, his white-knuckled hands clenching together at his sides.
“How’d it go?” Neal didn’t bother to look up, preferring to focus on shoving a large chip covered with melted cheddar cheese and jalapeños into his mouth.
Neal choked on his food and broke into a fit of coughing, his face turning crimson. He grabbed his water glass and chugged several deep gulps. Then he drew in a deep breath. “What did you say?”
“Merry Connor is innocent,” Tony said with finality. “She had nothing to do with her ex-husband’s crime.”
Neal looked up, piercing him with a stone-faced glare. “This time last week you didn’t even know her, but now you’re an expert on her character? You haven’t spent enough time with her to determine what she is capable of doing.”
Tony ignored Neal’s comments and turned his attention to the slender blonde server in jeans and a white blouse approaching their table.
She set a cardboard coaster in front of him and smiled. “What would you like to drink?”
At another time, perhaps, he would have found her fuzzy red and white Santa hat and necklace of blinking Christmas lights amusing, but today he merely shook his head. “Nothing, thanks. I’m not going to be here long.”
As soon as she left them alone, he focused on Neal again, eager to speak his piece and get out of there. “Given my experience in dealing with people, I’d say I’m an excellent judge of character.” He paused in disgust, watching Neal shove another gooey chip into his mouth. “I’ve seen her place; it’s garage sale central. She drives an old beater, still uses a flip phone and her second-hand television set is a picture tube model hooked up to rabbit ears. Merry Connor is not sitting on top of a million dollars. She’s broke.”
“It’s a smokescreen,” Neal argued sarcastically. “She’s biding her time, playing the victim until the old man gets out of prison. Then they’ll turn into the Beverly Hillbillies.” He snorted. “California—here we come!”
“That’s not true. Merry is a hard-working woman who’s struggling to make ends meet. She’s endured more hardship than anyone affected by this crime.”
“Don’t try to protect her.”
“I’m telling you what I saw! Look, Neal, we agreed—”
“We agreed you would get the truth out of her,” Neal countered with authority, as though reprimanding one of his employees. “Now get back over there and do your job.”
No one could aggravate him like his brother-in-law. For a moment, Tony went rigid as he envisioned smashing that plate of nachos into Neal’s face.
Let it go. He’s not worth it...
Tony sat back and drew in a deep breath, refusing to allow Neal’s arrogance to get to him. “I’ve done what we agreed to and given you my assessment of the situation. My decision stands. As far as I’m concerned, it’s over.”
“You’ve got it bad for her, don’t you?” Neal scowled. “Did you sleep with her? Is that how she got to you?”
A couple of descriptive and highly offensive four-letter words perched on the edge of Tony’s tongue, but he stopped himself before letting them fly. He would not stoop to Neal’s level, no matter how much the man baited him. “Actually, her kids got to me,” he said, purposely sidestepping the subject of his friendship with Merry. “They’ve suffered more than anyone. They lost their father, their home, and stable family life. Instead of judging Merry, it’s time someone in our family reached out to her and showed her kids some kindness. If it were my son in that position, I’d want the same for him.”
“Well, I’ll be—are you saying you’ve finally gotten off that high horse of self-pity you’ve been straddling for the last three years? You’ve decided to think about someone else besides your pathetic self for a change?” Neal followed up with a sharp, derisive laugh. “I won’t believe that until I see it with my own eyes.” He shoved the congealing, half-eaten plate of nachos away and grabbed his beer. “In any case, I guess it’s time to hire another P. I. to finish the job since you’re not man enough to do it.”
Tony slid out of the booth and stood, towering over Neal. “Say whatever you want about me; I could care less, but leave Merry Connor alone. She has a right to her privacy.”
Neal raised his beer in a mock salute. “Look who’s talking! Do you really think she’ll be in a forgiving mood when she finds out you’ve violated her privacy?”
“I fully intend to disclose my connection to you and Faith,” Tony said, “but as far as I’m concerned, I haven’t done anything wrong. I bought the contract-for-deed and met with the contract holder. There is absolutely nothing illegal or inappropriate about either action.”
Neal glared at him. “I’ll bet she’d find it extremely inappropriate if she learned your only motive for doing those things was to get justice for your sister.”
“I’m warning you.” Tony stabbed a finger in Neal’s direction, coming close to his brother-in-law’s face. “Stay away from Merry or else. That goes for the watchdog you’re going to hire, too. I don’t want him anywhere near her property or her kids. Cross that line and you’ll both answer to me.” He turned and walked away, resolute to make good on his threat if Neal didn’t back off.
As he left the bar, the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” followed him onto the empty, snow-dusted patio. He hadn’t experienced a “merry little Christmas” since his wife and son died, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t bring joy to someone else’s holiday. Joy—the kind that came with four legs, a wet nose, and a wagging tail.
The thought of Merry and the kids lifted his mood considerably. He’d given her the option to “board his dog” instead of cash for the car parts as an excuse to see her again. He wanted to see her again, very much so but knew he needed to reveal his connection to Neal and Faith to her as soon as possible. That said, he couldn’t just walk up to Merry and blurt it out. No, he’d have to find a way to talk to her without the kids around so he could break it to her gently. He needed to tell her the truth, but at the same time, he wanted to convince her that the situation between Aidan and the Carters would never affect their friendship.
He turned up the collar of his jacket and bounded down the stairs, stepping onto the cobblestone sidewalk of St. Anthony Main. Light, feathery flakes floated through the air, clinging to his coat and hair as he passed offices and shops draped with pine garland and red velvet bows. He stopped in front of Pracna on Main, a historic restaurant that had been in operation since 1890, to browse the menu posted in a glass case.
This would be a nice place to take Merry to dinner.
For the first time since Cherie’s death, Tony had allowed himself to become attracted to another woman. Ever since they met, Merry Connor had been on his mind and the more he thought about her, the more the sadness of losing Cherie slowly lifted. He couldn’t stop thinking about Merry’s radiant smile, the sparkle in her eyes when she laughed, and the soft lilt in her voice whenever she spoke to him. He wanted to have dinner with her on Saturday night, just the two of them, but would she even want to be friends once she learned his sister and brother-in-law were responsible for sending her husband to jail?
He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and walked on. Leveling with Merry was a risk he was willing to take.
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