A Merry Little Christmas
A sweet Christmas story
Merry Connor’s hand shook as she sat in her gold Cavalier and inserted the key into the ignition. Large snowflakes dropped onto the windshield, but the bleak November weather had little to do with her discomfort.
She turned the key.
“Come on, Rocket. Don’t fail me now. I have ten minutes to get to work. Please, start!”
She didn’t know where that noise came from under the hood, but it definitely sounded like trouble. Whispering a short prayer, she took a deep breath and tried again. This time she heard nothing but the sound of her own heartbeat pounding in her ears.
Rocket, the name her nine-year-old son labeled the car when she first brought it home, had been a reliable vehicle until now. However, from the looks of things, Rocket’s next trip would amount to a ride to the garage on the back of a tow truck. Unfortunately, towing didn’t come cheap. Neither did car repairs. For a divorced mother of two who could barely make ends meet, taking on more debt four weeks before Christmas meant financial disaster. She didn’t even have a Christmas tree yet, but that idea looked doubtful now.
Merry heaved a loud sigh and tipped her head back against the cold headrest. “Why is this happening to me? Don’t I have enough problems already?”
Her phone began to ring a familiar tune in her purse. Speaking of problems... She squared her shoulders, willing herself to remain calm as she reluctantly fished it out and pressed the speaker button. “Hi, Mom.”
“What’s the matter?” Lauren Benson asked sharply. “You sound upset.”
“No... I’m fine.” Merry grabbed her tote bag and shoved open the car door, not in the mood for her mother’s daily lecture on fiscal responsibility. “I’m on my way to work.”
“You’re starting rather early today, aren’t you? What about the kids?”
“I’ve already dropped them off at school.” She shut the car door and started walking down the driveway. The huge, feathery snowflakes were falling faster, covering everything with a fluffy layer of white. She would have been at work right now enjoying a rich cup of coffee with her coworkers if she hadn’t forgotten at home the apron containing her pens, wine key, crumber, and other items needed for her serving job at the Nicollet Island Inn. “I’m working longer hours now. One of the servers turned in her notice and my manager offered me the shift. Instead of making the first cut at twelve-thirty, I’m now coming in a half-hour earlier and staying on until three o’clock, when the dinner shift starts. The kids don’t get out of school until four so I’ll have enough time to check out and drive over there to pick them up.”
That is, once she’d solved her car problems. Today she’d have to walk to Marcy-Holmes Elementary School to get the kids.
At the end of the driveway, she turned right onto Nicollet Street and picked up the pace. According to her phone, she had exactly eight minutes to travel three-and-a-half blocks to the Nicollet Island Inn and clock in for work. Luckily, the blocks were short and she always wore non-slip shoes.
“Have you started Christmas shopping yet?” Lauren asked. “I thought you and the kids might like to meet Dad and me at Rosedale Mall on Saturday for lunch. Cody and Lily could get their pictures taken with Santa.”
“Actually, Mom, I have to work a double shift that day.” Her heart ached knowing she had to miss such a special moment with her kids, but she couldn’t help it—especially now with her car on the fritz. “My manager had to pull several servers from the dining room to staff Christmas parties in the banquet rooms. I really need the money, so I was wondering if you and Dad could watch the kids for me. My heat bill came yesterday and I wasn’t counting on it being so high.”
“I suppose,” Lauren said, stretching out the word “suppose” to let Merry know of her disapproval of her daughter’s last-minute schedule change. “We’ll pick up the kids early on Saturday and keep them overnight. I hate getting them up when you come to take them home. Lily gets so cranky when she’s awakened from a sound sleep.” She paused for a moment. “You should sell that creaky old house and move into a nice townhome. I see dozens of affordable properties in Minneapolis listed for sale every week in the Sunday paper. Some are right in the Marcey-Holmes area. The kids wouldn’t even have to change schools.”
Merry’s jaw clenched at the mention of the word affordable. The deliberate, calculated actions of her husband before their divorce had ruined her credit, making it impossible to get a loan for anything, including a decent car. She’d obtained her present home only through a sheer stroke of luck—and the personal recommendation of a good friend who knew of her unfortunate situation. Buying a nice townhouse meant asking her parents for help, something she’d determined to stop doing as soon as she could. Working a longer shift took her a step closer to that goal and one day she wouldn’t have to rely on them at all. Until then...
“Mom, I don’t want a townhouse. I like it here on Nicollet Island. Even though it’s in the center of the city, the island has a small-town feel and I love my neighbors.”
At Grove Street, she turned left, heading for East Island Avenue.
“Merry, it’s smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi River for crying out loud! I worry every day about Cody and Lily playing in the park. What if they went down to the water’s edge and fell in?”
“I never let them go to the park without me. I don’t allow them to leave our block much less go all the way to the other end of the island by themselves.”
“Why won’t you at least consider it? You know it would be safer for the kids. Besides, you wouldn’t have to shovel the sidewalk or mow the yard and the utilities wouldn’t be such a burden on your finances.”
Merry reached East Island Avenue and saw the historic Nicollet Island Inn, a square, three-story limestone building with aqua trim. She glanced at her phone and began to power walk. “I’d have a living room the size of a postage stamp and the kids wouldn’t have anywhere to play,” she said between deep breaths. “Mom, I know my house needs a lot of work, but it has character and a nice yard. I’ll get it fixed up someday.”
After I get my car repaired and buy a Christmas tree and pay the heating bill...
She hustled past De La Salle High School and crossed the Inn’s rear parking lot, listening to her mother go over the plan for Saturday. “Sounds great, Mom. Gotta go. I need to clock in and get to work,” she said, breathless. “Thanks for taking the kids. They’re going to have a lot of fun. Oh, and say hi to Dad. Bye.”
She shoved her phone into her pocket and pushed open the Inn’s back door. Sounds of a busy commercial kitchen diverted her attention, giving her a temporary respite from her problems. She waved to the chef on duty as he called out an order to one of his line cooks. A server asked for a side of toast while pulling an array of completed dishes from under the heating lights and arranging them on a large tray. Kitchen workers stood at their stations, chopping vegetables for soup and preparing items for the dishes of the day.
Merry hastened to find her security card and swiped one of the computers at the server station, clocking in exactly on time. She hung her empty tote and jacket on a hook then tied her long, black apron around her waist, mentally preparing herself for a busy day with friendly, interesting customers and great tips.
Though she was barely making it financially, life was good compared to two years ago when she’d lost everything—thanks to her lying, deceiving ex-husband. She’d come a long way since then and didn’t intend to look back. Even so, it would be a long time before she’d trust anyone with her heart again.
Anthony Lewis sat at a table at Sam’s Bar, surrounded by multi-colored Christmas lights and the woodsy aroma of pine as he stared at his brother-in-law in disbelief. “You want me to...what?”
Wearing a gray ski sweater that matched the premature aging streaks in his black hair, Neal Carter leaned forward and looked him in the eye. “You heard what I said, Tony,” Neal replied, addressing him by his nickname. “I want you to get friendly with the wife of the employee who embezzled money from me and to convince her to confide in you where he has it hidden.”
Tony cleared his throat and glanced around, hoping no one had overheard Neal’s request. “Are you serious?”
“More than you know.”
The man sounded so ridiculous Tony didn’t know whether to laugh in his face or change the subject. “You’re crazy,” he said, settling on the direct approach. “That’s impossible and you know it.”
Neal pushed his empty beer glass aside and clasped his hands on the table, his green eyes widening with excitement. “Actually, it’s perfect.” He tapped his fingers on the table to the music echoing throughout the room as Frank Sinatra and his female chorus sang about j-i-n-g-l-e bells. “I’ve got it all planned out. It’ll work, believe me.”
Tony shook his head. “I don’t care what you’ve got up your sleeve; I’m not going to wine and dine some chick to get her into bed for the sole purpose of extracting a midnight confession for you. Find somebody else. I’m not your delivery boy.”
“I’m not suggesting you wine and dine and sleep with anyone.” Neal frowned. “I don’t care how you get the information out of her. I just want you to find out where Aidan Connor hid the money so I can get my million dollars back. There’s a ten percent finders fee in this deal for recovering it. Just think what you could do with an extra hundred grand in your pocket.”
“I don’t need your money.”
Neal lifted one brow. “Everybody needs more money. Including you.”
He’s not going to let this go until I either agree to it or tell him off...
“Why me?” Tony snapped, becoming irritated. “Why don’t you hire a private detective to do your dirty work?”
“I did. Paid him good money to find out what the woman knows, but so far, he hasn’t delivered any useful information. It’s time to change tactics.” Neal signaled the cocktail server for another round. Sinatra’s song ended and the music switched to an instrumental rendition of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”
Tony raised his hand to get the girl’s attention. “Excuse me,” he said to the tall brunette wearing jeans and a shiny gold blouse as she stood at the bar, arranging drinks on a tray. Behind her, a dozen red and white fuzzy Christmas stockings hung on a string along the cedar-paneled wall. “Cancel the beer for me. I’ll take a Coke.” He turned back to Neal. “Why are you so set on pressuring me into this?”
Neal went silent for a moment. “Because you’re the only one I trust.”
The manager suddenly appeared at their table with their lunch order and set the heavy platters on the table. “Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“We’re good,” Neal said as he sized up his food. “Thanks.”
The pungent aroma of freshly grilled beef and thick, crispy fries made Tony’s stomach growl. He reached for the ketchup, squirted a large puddle on his plate then dipped his burger into the thick red sauce and took a huge bite.
“Sorry I got so testy,” Neal said once they were alone again. “You’re right. This isn’t about the money. Our insurance carrier settled with Faith and me a while back. It’s the principle of the thing.” He pulled the upper half of the bun off his burger, dumped a garnish of coleslaw on the meat then placed the bun back on top, pressing it down. “Aidan Connor worked as our accountant for ten years. We had no idea he was siphoning money out of the store’s account right under our noses. He was smart; a little here, a little there. Our liquor sales run at such a high volume we never missed it.”
The server dropped off their drinks. “How’s everything?”
They both nodded to signal they were satisfied and continued to munch on their meals.
Tony reached for his Coke. “What makes you think he still has the money? Most embezzlers spend it as fast as they get it.”
Neal set down his burger. “Aidan is cheap. He doesn’t—I mean didn’t—fish, hunt, gamble, or buy expensive toys. He lived in a modest home and didn’t believe in buying a brand new car because they depreciated so fast. The police investigation didn’t turn up any international activity or unusually large accounts established in his kids’ names.” Neal picked up a French fry and swirled it in a glob of ketchup on his plate. His hand stopped in mid-air, pointing the fry at Tony. “Make no mistake; he’s got that cash squirreled away somewhere. I don’t know if he’s converted it to silver or gold or maybe it’s still in currency, but I’ll bet you anything, he and the missus are planning to make a run for it with their booty as soon as he gets out of prison.”
Tony set down his Coke. “If the guy was so smart, how did you catch him?”
“When we expanded the store our business nearly doubled and we had to hire more people, including a second accountant. She’s the one who eventually caught on to him.” Neal’s jaw clenched. “Otherwise, he’d still be ripping us off.”
So full he couldn’t eat another bite, Tony sat back and exhaled a large sigh. “I understand how you feel, Neal, but I don’t know anything about undercover work. I’m a real estate investor. I have no idea how to approach Aidan Connor’s wife and, frankly, I don’t want to know.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re good at dealing with people.” Neal wiped his hands on his napkin then reached under the table and grabbed a file from his briefcase. “Her name is Merry Connor, that’s M-e-r-r-y, and she lives in a house on Nicollet Island.”
“There you go,” Tony said, finding the ammunition to shut down his brother-in-law’s ridiculous idea. He knew that area like the back of his hand. “All of the houses on Nicollet Island are designated historic. The entire island is historic, for that matter. She must have used a nice chunk of the money to acquire property there.”
“No, she didn’t.” Neal pushed his plate aside and set the manila folder on the table. “The house she bought was owned by a woman who’d lived in it for sixty years. The husband passed away about twenty years ago and the wife became a recluse. When the old lady died, she left the property to her favorite niece and nephew. They didn’t want to sink any money into the place to bring it up to code so they sold it ‘as is’ on a contract-for-deed to Merry. This is where you come in.” Neal flashed a smug grin. “You’re going to buy that contract and use it as an excuse to introduce yourself to her.”
“What?” Tony started, almost knocking over his Coke. “You’re out of your mind. I’m not donating to this ridiculous cause.” He stood up to leave. “You stick to your business, Neal, and I’ll stick to mine. I don’t buy anything until I’ve thoroughly checked it out and determined it’s worth adding to my portfolio.”
Neal flipped open the folder and shuffled through the papers as though he hadn’t heard a word. “I spoke to Gerald Grange; he’s the administrator of the old lady’s estate and one of the contract holders. He’s anxious to dump it because he’s trying to expand his consulting business and needs the money.” Neal waved his hand to indicate he didn’t know the whole story and cared less. “Anyway, he wants to cash out.” Neal held out a copy of the contract for Tony to examine. “If you can come up with the funds by the end of this week, he’s willing to discount it twenty-five percent.”
Tony glanced down and saw the contract amount. The house must be a total wreck to let it go that cheap.
He dropped the contract on the table. “Not interested. Thanks for lunch.”
“Wait.” Neal reached out, grabbing Tony by the arm. “I didn’t want to bring this up, but you owe it to Faith to give my idea a chance. She deserves justice for what Aidan did to her.”
“Justice my—” Tony shook off Neal’s hand and leaned over the table, face-to-face with his brother-in-law. “Don’t even think of dragging my sister into your little game of revenge.”
“She’s already involved whether you like it or not. Aidan stole the money from both of us.” Neal glared at him. “I see you’ve conveniently forgotten how Faith came through for you when you needed her. As I recall, she drove you to the hospital to identify Cherie and Evan’s bodies then took over the funeral arrangements because you were so distraught. She wanted to spare you the trauma of planning the burial of your own wife and son. Is this how you repay her?”
Neal’s low blow angered Tony, but even worse, it triggered a fresh wave of grief as the chilling memory of that snowy December night and the images of his lifeless wife and child flashed through his mind. Over time, he’d convinced himself he’d made progress in dealing with their deaths. Neal’s thoughtless words proved otherwise. Though the accident happened nearly three years ago, the pain of losing the greatest love of his life and his precious child still throbbed like a fresh wound, leaving a gaping hole in his soul.
“Don’t ever bring up that night again,” he said shakily, bracing his hands on the table, “or so help me, I’ll—”
Neal pushed his chair back and countered with a sheepish laugh. “Okay, okay, I’ll admit my situation isn’t as life-altering as what happened to you, but nevertheless, this business with Aidan Connor is destroying my marriage. His thievery broke Faith’s heart. Aidan Connor was more than an employee. He was a longtime friend, someone she’d known since high school. His betrayal still fuels her depression because it has shaken her trust in people, including me.”
The mention of his sister’s mental state caused Tony to pause. He knew she’d been dealing with depression for a long time, and during the holidays, it always seemed to get worse. He couldn’t deny that she’d helped him through the darkest time of his life, but it ticked him off to hear Neal play the guilt card to coerce him into action.
He grabbed his jacket and slid his arms into it. “Does she know you’re orchestrating this little mission-impossible on her behalf?”
“Of course not,” Neal said, “and she’s not going to know about it until I get the money back. I want to give her some good news, not an empty promise.”
Tony gripped his hips with his hands. “This is such a long shot I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Neal’s face brightened. “You can start by buying Merry’s contract and making friends with her. You two have a lot in common. She’s about ten years younger than Aidan. That puts her close to your age—middle thirties, right? She’s lost her spouse; she has small children and owns a house, so obviously, she likes real estate.”
Tony stared at Neal in frustration. Yeah, that makes no sense. How many drinks did you have before I got here, anyway? He sighed, feeling torn. “If I decide to do this, I’ll do it on my terms.”
Neal stood. “All right, what are your terms?”
“You get one shot at this and I make no promises, so don’t get your hopes up. I’ll set up a meeting with her to go over the contract and if I learn something useful through the course of our conversation, I’ll let you know. There’s no ‘Plan B,’ no further argument from you. I want no part of whatever scheme you’re concocting against this woman. Is that understood? As far as I’m concerned, this is a business deal and nothing more.”
“Understood.” Neal signaled to the server to bring his tab as Elvis crooned “Blue Christmas.” He cut a hard glance at Tony. “While you’re thinking this over I want you to do something for me. Try to visualize the face of Aidan Conner after he gets out of prison and he realizes we’ve found his hidey-hole because his stash is gone.” His eyes narrowed. “And that his time served gained him absolutely nothing.”
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