Once Upon a Christmas

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Chapter One

October 14th

Ashton Wyatt stepped through the front door of the Ramblin’ Rose Tavern and flipped on the lights, grimacing at the sticky cobwebs covering her fingers. She wiped her hand on her jeans as she stared in dismay at what used to be West Loon Bay’s most popular honky-tonk. In its heyday, locals and tourists had crammed into the town’s oldest saloon every night to drink chilled mugs of beer and line dance to ear-splitting country music. Now, the place echoed an eerie silence, with no trace of its former glory in the plastic cups, empty longneck bottles and discarded pull-tab tickets littering the grimy, carpeted floor. Faded posters and old neon beer signs hung askew on smoky, windowless walls. Battered, mismatched chairs and tables were scattered aimlessly about the gloomy room.

A sudden scratchiness creeped up the back of her throat, making Ashton violently cough. She covered her face with a tissue while waving away a cloud of dust motes floating through the musty air. “Everything smells like mold, old grease and stale beer,” she said to her sister and dabbed at her nose with the tissue. “My allergies are already kicking up a fuss.” She raised her water bottle to her lips and drank, but it didn’t help much. “This place is a dump. It would take a miracle to transform it back into the successful business it once was.”

Ashton’s younger sister, Grace, made a slow, 360-degree turn. The corners of her mouth curved with an enthusiastic smile as her large brown eyes took in every detail of the room. “No, it wouldn’t,” she replied cheerfully. “All it needs is a good scrubbing with disinfectant and some paint. I think we should go for it.”

“Are you crazy?” Ashton sniffled as she looked around, stopping at the pendant lights hanging over the billiard table. They used to be green, but now were covered with a thick layer of grime mixed with dust. Half of them weren’t working and she wondered whether they needed new bulbs or new wiring. “It would probably cost a small fortune just to bring the building up to code. Never mind the price of redecorating.” She coughed again. “Can we go now? My eyes are starting to burn.”

Grace flipped her long, thick braid of dark hair behind her back. “What did you expect? It’s an old building,” she said, ignoring Ashton’s eagerness to escape. “Old buildings have dust.”

Ashton stepped over a smashed Styrofoam carton and approached the pool table. She leaned against the corner, noting the eight-ball sitting next to a side pocket, ready to drop in at the slightest movement to the table. “Look, I don’t drink anymore and you’ve never started, Grace. We have nothing in common with this place. Neither of us knows a single thing about the bar business much less what it would take to open one.”

“So what? We can learn,” Grace argued as she brushed a wisp of curly hair from her face. “Aunt Rose didn’t know anything about operating the business, either, when she bought the building, but she made it a success for over twenty-five years. She told Mom that if we decided to reopen it, she’d mentor us. She also offered a startup loan to help us out.”

Ashton pushed herself away from the table. “That’s going to cost her a lot of money! Why is she willing to do this for us?”

Grace wandered around the room, smiling with too much enthusiasm for Ashton’s comfort. “I guess she wants to keep the business in the family,” Grace said. “Now that she’s getting married, she doesn’t have any interest in operating it anymore, but she doesn’t want to sell it, either.”

“Yeah, but how can she afford to shell out so much cash for her wedding and to us to start up the bar again?”

Grace rolled her eyes. “Come on, Ashton, it’s no secret that Rose is smart when it comes to making money. But, even if she didn’t have a dime, Alex would give her the funds if she asked him.”

Rose’s only child, Alexander Lang, had left town years ago with little cash and a scandal brewing, but had recently returned, now a world-famous rock star. He had more than enough money for himself and his mother.

“I don’t know.” Ashton sighed, unconvinced. “It’s such a long shot. I’d have to quit my job immediately and sell my townhouse to move back here.”

Grace countered with a wry laugh. “Ash, you’re constantly frustrated with your job! You should be happy that Aunt Rose has offered us this opportunity. Now you can quit and go to work for yourself. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?”

Yes, but...

Lately, Ashton had been giving a lot of thought to resigning from her executive position at Gepson Affordable Housing Corporation in Minneapolis. Over the last few months, she’d gradually become overwhelmed and emotionally drained by the constant demands of her job. Working for a non-profit housing developer wasn’t easy. The low pay and high turnover meant they were always short-staffed, but government bureaucracy and the constant pressure of finding new funding sources contributed the most to employee burnout on the executive level. She knew the time had come to make a career change, but she hadn’t planned on something this drastic. Granted, she’d always dreamed of one day starting her own business. Never in her wildest dreams, however, had she imagined herself taking over a small-town beer joint in northern Minnesota and certainly not one in such pathetic condition.

“Besides,” Grace continued quietly, interrupting her thoughts, “don’t you miss Mom and Dad? You hardly ever come home to visit.”

A pang of guilt pierced Ashton’s heart. “Of course, I miss them. I just...”

Since high school, Ashton had struggled with her relationship with her parents. During her teenage years, she’d run with a bad crowd and frequently got into trouble, making things difficult for her father, an officer in the West Loon Bay Police Department. In the ten years since she’d graduated, her dad, Bob Wyatt had worked his way up to Chief of Police. Ashton had moved one hundred-fifty miles away, determined to leave the fishbowl atmosphere of small-town life—and her strained relationship with her parents—behind. She still visited them, but only on major holidays and she never stayed overnight. In the last few years, however, a sense of loneliness and restlessness had begun to shroud her heart, fueling her desire to mend her differences with them and grow close to them again. Sadly, the gap between her and her parents had grown so wide she didn’t know how to bridge it.

“Oh, my gosh!” Grace shrieked. “Did you see that mouse?” She scrambled upon the scarred surface of a small, square table. Grace measured an inch or two over five feet tall and weighed about a hundred pounds soaking wet. Standing on a rickety table in green denim leggings and a long red sweater, she looked more like a frightened Christmas elf than a serious business owner. She pointed toward the billiard area. “It ran over there!”

Ashton checked the corner where the mouse supposedly scurried to escape her sister’s frantic screams, but didn’t see any threatening creatures lurking about. “It’s gone. You can come down now.”

She stifled the urge to laugh at her sister’s ridiculous reaction. How could Grace run a workingman’s bar and keep rowdy customers in line when she couldn’t master her fear of one hapless little rodent?

Then again, Ashton faced a monumental problem herself. “Look, Grace, I do miss Mom and Dad, and I do think about moving back to West Loon Bay, but...”

“But what—what’s stopping you?”

Ashton glanced around the room again. “I can’t just walk away from everything I’ve accomplished and completely start over on a whim, especially for this.”

“Hey!” Grace hopped off the table, her tennis shoes echoing a loud thud on the floor. Making a grand sweep of the room with her arm, she said, “This is being handed to us as a gift. Okay, it’s not pretty, but success is what you make of it. Are you going to play it safe and go back to that employer who doesn’t appreciate you, or are you going to take a chance and become a partner with me? Because I don’t want to be a pre-school teacher for the rest of my life. I want to do something exciting. I’m going to take Aunt Rose’s offer!”

“Not without me!”

Ashton and Grace spun around to find their cousin, Allyson Cramer, standing in the doorway. Allyson’s straight blonde hair glistened in the golden October sunshine streaming across the floor. She’d lost weight since last Christmas when Ashton saw her at a family celebration. Her snug-fitting aqua Capri pants and matching print blouse showed off her slim curves.

Ashton’s jaw dropped as she admired Allyson’s stunning new look, but that didn’t change the fact that they rarely got along. Their stubbornness and competitiveness made them too much alike. “What are you doing here? How did you know Aunt Rose wanted us to reopen The Ramblin’ Rose?”

Allyson strutted into the room, her silver stilettos padding softly on the carpet. “She told me first! That’s how Grace found out. I asked Grace if she wanted to go into business with me.” Allyson’s blue eyes twinkled. The corners of her mouth curved in a mischievous grin, revealing perfect white teeth, the result of braces in middle school. “So, if you want to be part of the team, you’ll have to ask me nice.”

Ashton’s ire rose as she cut a glance at Grace to catch her sister’s reaction. As kids, she and Allyson had always been rivals and it appeared that the passage of time had not changed that aspect between them. She gritted her teeth. “You look terrific, Allyson. It’s too bad it never occurred to you to lose your attitude as well.”

Allyson dropped her black designer purse on a table and laughed. “Oh, come on, Ashton. Get over yourself. I’m kidding!”

Grace joined in the laughter, but she sounded nervous, as though she worried that Ashton thought she and Allyson were scheming behind her back. Grace didn’t have a scheming bone in her body. Allyson, on the other hand...

Ashton cleared her worsening throat and took another swig of her water. “So, why did Aunt Rose tell you first?”

“Because I’m her favorite niece,” Allyson said matter-of-factly. Her mother, Ruth and Aunt Rose were identical twins. Allyson resembled them so much that most people joked they were actually triplets. She turned to Grace. “Did you tell Ashton about the startup money?”

Grace nodded. “Of course, I did. We can’t reopen the bar without it.”

Ashton still found it impossible to believe. “Why is Aunt Rose being so generous?”

“No one offered her a helping hand back in the day when she desperately needed one,” Allyson retorted as she wandered over to the mahogany bar. “Everyone turned against her and gossiped about her behind her back because she wouldn’t say who had fathered Alex.” Allyson ran one manicured finger across the counter and examined the dust on it. “People treated Aunt Rose like an outcast. She told me it only made her more resolute to succeed.” Allyson smacked her palms together, shaking the dust off them. “I’m pretty sure she’s offering it to us instead of selling it because she’s determined to keep her property from ever falling into the hands of anyone who mistreated her.”

“I can understand that,” Ashton said, remembering the humiliation she’d experienced back in her senior year of high school. Malicious and hurtful gossip had spread about her after her boyfriend, Cole Jacobson, had cheated on her with her best friend on prom night. She’d moved away that summer to go to college and escape from the stifling existence of small-town life, never looking back.

Except that lately she had been looking back and wondering if she’d done the right thing. At the time, running away from all of her problems had seemed like the easiest thing to do. Looking at it now, she realized she hadn’t solved anything.

Grace sighed with frustration. “Look, if the three of us are going to join forces and start up this business, we must agree—today—that we’re going to do everything in our power to get along with each other. Otherwise, we’re just wasting our time and Aunt Rose’s money.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything yet,” Ashton quipped, seriously questioning her ability to see eye to eye on managing any kind of business with Allyson. “I’m not convinced this is a smart career move.”

“Suit yourself.” Folding her arms, Allyson rested her back against the bar, crossing her feet at her ankles. “Grace and I will carry on without you.”

“Hey, I never said I wouldn’t do it,” Ashton blurted, worried about her younger sister jumping into the fray alone. “I said I wasn’t convinced I should.”

“Then we’re going to sit down and talk this over like intelligent women!” Grace pulled out two chairs and motioned for both girls to occupy them.

Allyson pulled a couple tissues from her purse and began to wipe the wooden tabletop as Grace dusted off the seats of the chairs.

Once they sat down, Grace smacked her hand in the center of the table. “The conversation can’t begin until we all pledge to work together,” she snapped, glaring first at Ashton, then at Allyson. “You guys have never gotten along, but you’re adults now, so it’s high time you did.”

Allyson shrugged. “I have no problem with that.”

Grace’s brown-eyed gaze zeroed in on Ashton. “What about you?”

“Okay!” Ashton held up her palms. “I can do it if she can.”

Grace splayed her fingers on the table. “Then let’s do it!”

Ashton placed her hand on top of Grace’s, followed by Allyson’s hand on top of hers.

“Agreed!” they chanted in unison.

Ashton had no idea what to do next as they pulled their hands away and stared at each other in silence.

Then they all started talking at once.

“The carpet has to go,” Grace spouted, wrinkling her nose. “It’s gross.”

“I think we should paint the walls creamy white,” Ashton added. “About three coats to cover the rancid cigarette smell and to brighten up the place.”

“Yeah,” Allyson said, nodding in agreement, “and we should hire someone to install a few windows, too. Bring some natural light in here.” She pursed her lips in annoyance as she glanced around. “This place is as dark as a tomb.”

Ashton pointed toward the ceiling. “Speaking of lights, we need new fixtures. Half of these don’t work.”

“We need to remodel the bathrooms, too. They’re probably...” Allyson made a face and shuddered.

They all burst out laughing.

Now that they had formed a team, ideas began to flow fast and furious. Grace pulled a pen and a notebook from her purse to jot it all down and by the time she’d finished, they had a “To Do” list of remodeling and redecorating tasks four pages long.

Grace frowned at her notebook. “Where are we going to get the money to tackle all of this?”

Allyson sat back, her golden brows knit together as she thought for a moment. “I know someone who does excellent work. I’ll strike a deal with him to complete the priority items and make him agree to wait for payment until after we open for business.”

Ashton did a double take at the notion of delaying payment to a contractor. What kind of idiot would give them instant, long term credit simply on Allyson’s word? “Are you sure he’ll go for that without any strings attached?”

“Of course.” Allyson grinned. “He owes me more than a few favors.”

Everyone went silent again, absorbing the monumental task they were about to tackle.

Ashton gripped the edges of her chair as the stark reality of the situation took hold. Forming this partnership meant she’d have to sell her townhouse, quit her position at work and move back to West Loon Bay. In other words, give up every shred of stability and security she’d attained in her life to launch out into the unknown. Could she do it? Did she really want to do it? But then...

If I don’t, will I spend the rest of my life regretting that I passed up the chance to do something risky and exciting?

She looked at Grace for inspiration. Grace smiled back, seemingly unconcerned about the consequences of failure or embarrassment for themselves and their parents if their business went belly-up.

She stared at Allyson, hoping her cousin would give her some assurance they were making the right decision. Allyson’s cool blue eyes didn’t show any emotion, but the rigidity in her spine and her silence implied that she, too, had worries about turning this broken-down relic into the thriving business it used to be.

The thought of trying to successfully “fill Aunt Rose’s shoes” twisted Ashton’s stomach into knots.

Grace stood. “So, we’re going ahead with it. All of us.”

“All of us,” Allyson replied, though the uncharacteristic monotone in her answer made her sound uncertain.

Grace stared at Ashton, waiting for her answer.

Ashton swallowed hard. “All of us.”

I can’t believe I’m actually going through with this. What am I getting myself into?

Only time would tell.

****
“Hey there.”

Sawyer Daniels looked up from framing a small storage barn in the lot behind his workshop to see Allyson Cramer sauntering toward him.

They had been good friends for most of their lives, but right now, she was the last person he wanted to see...

“Hey, yourself,” he said gruffly. “How’s bankruptcy court coming along?”

Her smiling face clouded at the mention of her ill-fated interior design business. “I don’t want to talk about that right now. I came to ask you for a favor.”

He laughed wryly at her boldness, but it really didn’t faze him. Allyson’s directness and honesty happened to be what he’d always admired the most about her. Lately, however, her inability to pay her bills had become the aspect he least admired about her. “Well, it’s at the top of my conversational list. I still haven’t received payment for the last two jobs I did for you and Janeen.”

She stepped over a couple of wooden planks, her black patent leather stilettos clicking on the blacktop. “Neither have I—but Janeen owes me a lot more than that. I had no idea how much money she was stealing from the company until our checks started bouncing. I wish I’d never gone into business with her.”

For someone who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, Allyson sure didn’t show it. Her black satin slacks and silky white top looked new and very expensive. So did that fancy-looking handbag with the initials LV printed all over it. He wondered if she’d given herself a last-minute bonus before throwing in the towel or if she’d maxed out one of her credit cards. He had a feeling she’d reached the limit on all of her accounts.

Lucy, his five-year-old black Labrador mix, ran toward Allyson, wagging her tail.

“Stop!” Allyson stretched out her hands. “You’ll get dirt on my pants.”

“Lucy, get down!” Sawyer quickly wedged himself between them before Lucy could put her paws on Allyson’s pretty clothes. “Sit!”

Lucy obeyed, looking confused as she whined and thumped her tail.

He stepped over to a faded red Coleman cooler, flipped open the lid and pulled out two chilled bottles of water. “I’ll save you some time trying to sweet-talk me. The answer is no.”

She frowned, her lower lip protruding in that cute “pouting” expression she always used whenever she had something up her sleeve. “You don’t even know what I want yet.”

He handed her a bottle of water. “Doesn’t matter; I’m pretty sure you either need something built or your car fixed, but I’m not doing any more favors for you until I get paid the ten thousand you already owe me.”

She took the bottle and examined the label, raising her brows at the Walmart logo. “That’s what I’ve come to talk to you about. I’m going to settle up with you.”

Sawyer twisted off the cap of his bottle. “But...” he replied, purposely making it sound more like a statement than a question. He lifted the container to his lips and took a long swig, never taking his gaze off her as he waited for her to fill in the rest of the sentence.

She displayed a disarming smile. “But you have to do another job for me to get it.”

“You’ve got nerve, you know that? I told you—” He barely got the words out before he began to choke on his water.

She moved close and smacked him between the shoulder blades. “I mean it, Sawyer. I’m going to pay you back, but you have to help me out or I won’t be able to get the money. You want to get paid, don’t you?”

Straightening, he screwed the cap on his bottle and set it in a holder on the lid of the cooler. “Of course, I do, but if you don’t have any money now, how are you going to pay me when I finish the next job?”

“Because I’m going to get the money very soon.” She pulled a couple of webbed lawn chairs into the shade and motioned for him to join her. Brushing off the seat of the nearest one, she gingerly sat down, looking as though she expected the chair to fall apart underneath her. “I’m reopening The Ramblin’ Rose.”

He burst out laughing. “I expected your idea to be off the wall, but this is—”

“Don’t laugh!” She gave him a stubborn look. “I used to tend bar in college. Besides, my Aunt Rose is giving me a loan.”

Lucy trotted over to Sawyer’s chair and sat next to him, resting her chin on his knee.

“Is that so?” He patted Lucy on the head. “I hope she’s lending you enough to pay me back, too.”

Allyson set her unopened water bottle on the ground beside her chair. “I have to make some changes to the building before the bar opens. That’s where you come in.” She reached into her handbag and pulled out a handwritten list. “The items in red are the initial modifications I want you to make. The rest will come later as I can afford it. You’ll get compensated incrementally as you complete the project. Once I’m open for business, I’ll start paying off the old debt.”

Renovating that old structure seemed like a waste of time, but he unfolded the paper and scanned the list anyway.

She set her handbag on the ground and leaned toward him. “Meet me at the bar tomorrow for a walk-through and we’ll go over the specifics.”

He’d grown up in West Loon Bay but rarely went back there, even though he lived only ten miles south in Summerville. In his misspent youth, he’d done his share of partying at The Ramblin’ Rose and giving the local cops a hard time, but when he left town, he’d abandoned his old life—and his drinking buddies. Instead, he’d adopted a homeless dog, started a business and built a house in an effort to make some sense out of his life. Working at The Ramblin’ Rose increased his chances of running into some of his former crowd. He had no interest in renewing old acquaintances, especially Cole Jacobson, the best-friend-turned-traitor who’d stolen his girlfriend right from under his nose—on prom night no less. It hadn’t taken him long to get over Brenda Miller, but even after all these years, he still lived with the temptation to punch out Cole’s lights for double-crossing him.

Let it go... You’re not that person anymore. Besides, what happened turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Brenda wasn’t the one for you.

Sawyer refolded the page and handed it back to her. “I’m too busy at the moment. I’ve got my own customers to keep happy.”

She groaned loudly in disappointment. “When can you start then?”

“I’ve got orders for storage barns and a custom fish house to finish. I’m busy until Thanksgiving,” he said, hoping she’d be in a hurry, as usual, and decide to hire someone else.

Instead of backing off, Allyson leaned toward him and gripped his arm. “Sawyer, I planned to open by Thanksgiving. I need you on the job now.”

Gently, but firmly he pulled his arm away. “I can’t. I have commitments.”

“In two weeks, then.” She glared at him, her jaw stubbornly set. “By that time, I’ll have a crew on-site working on the cleanup.” When he didn’t answer, she began to blink back tears. “Come on, Sawyer. You’ve got to help me. Best friends always stick together. Didn’t I help you back when you were starting your business?”

Even though he had no doubt she’d deliberately manufactured the waterworks for his benefit, it still made him uncomfortable. He had a soft spot for Allyson and knew he always would. Friends since childhood, they were as close as siblings and occasionally squabbled like brother and sister, but neither ever held a grudge. Bringing up their life-long friendship and how her interior design company had given him jobs when he first went into business for himself seared his conscience. He couldn’t say no.

And she knew it.

He expelled a deep sigh of resignation. “All right, I’ll meet you at the bar tomorrow morning at ten o’clock, but I can’t start the job until the first of November. For this job, I want half of the money down in cash and the rest upon completion. Is that understood?”

Smiling, she grabbed her handbag and sprung from her chair, all traces of her former tears gone. “I’m going to see Aunt Rose right now and tell her I’ve hired you. I think it would be a good idea if she attended the meeting as well.” She kissed him on the cheek. “You’re the greatest, Sawyer. Gotta go. Tons of things to do!” She left him wiping her peach lipstick from the rough surface of his jaw with the back of his hand. “I’ll call you!” she yelled over her shoulder as she hurried to her car, her long blonde hair billowing behind her. How she could run in those ridiculous shoes was anybody’s guess.

Lucy smacked his knee with her paw, reminding him of her presence. “You’re so jealous of her,” he said, chuckling softly as he rubbed her ears. “Don’t worry, sweetie, you’re still my number one girl.”

Sawyer watched Allyson drive away, wondering if he’d ever meet the right girl for him. He knew all of the women in the area. He’d attended school with most of them and dated many, but no one had ever captured his heart; no one had ever given him the emotional rush he’d experienced with Brenda Miller. Had he missed his chance for happiness, or had being in love with her simply given him a taste of what the real thing could be like?

He truly hoped someday he’d find out.

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