Now available from Cerridwen Press, a Christmas romantic comedy by K. Z. Snow.
* * * * *
Oh, crap, Christmas is coming.
That's Lauren Rose's attitude.
Why? Because her husband left her for a twit. And because she's dated seventeen losers since her divorce. That's why. "The most wonderful time of the year" doesn't seem that wonderful to her, and she's not exactly in the mistletoe mood. But she wants to be. Well, kind of. Because her therapist has urged her to try.
So Lauren applies for a job playing Mrs. Santa Claus. That might get her in the holiday spirit. Unless, of course, the job turns out to be a bigger bite than she can easily chew, and a major reason for its unchewability is that one of those seventeen losers happens to be playing Santa opposite her . . . at a huge shopping mall, no less. Then there's a mischievous elf named Ralphie, and there are those inevitable encounters with difficult children and parents, and the interference of meddlesome friends, and the appearance of an icky ex or two.
How on earth can a diehard Grinchette handle it? Can she handle it? And maybe, just maybe, find love in the grueling process?
* * * * *
"Please, God, let this not be the place," Lauren murmured as she sat in her idling car. She double-checked. Yes, she'd turned in the right direction onto Plum Bottom Lane. Yes, the address/fire number matched the one Hank had given her.
Her only consolation was the fact that after this evening, she'd never have to lay eyes on the place again.
Although it was only early November, the expansive front yard was a riot of exuberant holiday kitsch. Multicolored lights glared around and glowed within every character, creature, and animal associated with Christmas. Elves—some brandishing toys like weapons, or battlefield souvenirs—cavorted around a laden sleigh with a full complement of reindeer, their names encircling their necks. The grin on Santa's face, had it been on a real person, would have alarmed any security officer enough to give him a pat-down. Farther away, a trio of carolers, their mouths frozen in perfect ovals, sang silently. Ebenezer Scrooge glowered behind the entire Cratchit clan. A crèche scene had so many mismatched figures that Baby Jesus seemed on the verge of springing from his manger and sprinting all the way to Bethlehem just to escape the mutants. Scattered amidst these statues and more were the twinkling outlines of other Christmas icons. Lights flanked the walkway, wound through every shrub and tree, and outlined the house itself.
Lauren was tempted to fish in her purse for her sunglasses.
She wanted to slink back to her car and leave...but, damn, she'd spent so much time tarting herself up for this evening!
Reluctantly, she picked her way to the front door. The house, she finally noticed, was an attractive, older, well maintained Cape Cod, probably quite cozy inside. Feeling a little more heartened, she rang the bell. It played the first few bars of "Jingle Bells," and that made her think of the Christmas carnival in the yard. Warily, she took a step back, imagining some Little Shop of Horrors poinsettia lunging at her and dragging her inside.
But the door opened quite normally, if a little abruptly, and a boy of perhaps fourteen stood there beaming at her. "Hi!" he said cheerily. "You must be Liz." He pushed his eyeglasses back up his nose and kept smiling.
"Uh, yes. Hello."
"I'm Ben." The boy stuck out his hand.
Lauren shook it. "Nice to meet you, Ben."
He stood to one side. "Come on in. It's a lot warmer in here than out there."
As Lauren stepped into a foyer hung with oversized ornaments, she heard a man's voice call out, "Ben, who's there?"
The boy looked uncertainly over his shoulder, then back at Lauren. His smile wavered, became less confident. He turned back to the house's interior. "Hey, Dad, come out here a minute!"
Lauren's initial mild confusion lurched toward edginess. Something was wrong here. Why hadn't "Dad" answered the door? And if she was to have dinner with him, why didn't she smell food cooking? Why was his son there?
A tall, striking man with wide shoulders, clean-lined features, and a shaved head appeared, frowning slightly, from a room on her right. He stopped, looking through his eyeglasses from Lauren to his son to Lauren again. Ever mindful of her appearance, she flashed him a dazzling smile.
"Dad," Ben said with a brightness as artificial as the front yard's, "this is Liz. Liz, this is, um...Hank."
The man slumped against the doorframe, rolling his head back and closing his eyes. He sighed. "Benjamin, get your bank out."
"No. Go open your bank."
The boy cast a doleful look at Lauren before shuffling toward the stairway that rose from the left side of the foyer. She was aware of her mouth hanging open and her forehead collapsing toward the center as she watched him mount the stairs. Making a concentrated effort to change her expression — although she couldn't erase her stupefaction — she turned back to his father. Surely he had an explanation.
"I'm sorry," the man murmured, looking at the floor. "There's been a...little bit of trickery here." He shot an uneasy glance at Lauren and tried to muster a smile, but the best his mouth could do was twitch up briefly at the corners. He shoved his hands in his pockets, crossed his legs, and resumed studying the terra cotta floor tiles.
Lauren didn't know what to say. She let out a breath and dumbly shook her head. The unmistakable, chinkling sound of spilling coins came from upstairs. Soon, Ben descended, grasping the handrail and nearly dragging his feet.
With lowered head he approached Lauren and stuck out an arm. There was a ten-dollar bill between his fingers. "I apologize for making you drive all the way over here," he muttered. "Please let me pay for your gas." The little speech sounded rehearsed, as if he'd spoken the lines quite a few times before.
Lauren's face rearranged itself again, and this time she couldn't control it. "What is going on?" she whispered.
The man straightened and tried to look at her. "Well, Ben has this tendency to play matchmaker..."
Lauren turned her eyes to the boy, who was still offering her the ten. She slapped a hand to her forehead. "Oh my God, you sent me those emails?"
Obviously embarrassed, he nodded. "I'm just trying to help—"
"Benjamin," his father said evenly, "how many times do I have to tell you that I don't want or need your help? How many times are we going to play out this scene before you get the message?"
"I dunno," the boy mumbled. "But if you're not gonna do it yourself..."
"Stop it. Now give the lady her gas money and go to your room."
"Keep it," Lauren said as kindly as possible, smiling at the boy. "Believe me, I've made longer trips for less. At least this one was...somewhat entertaining."
Ben's father went up to him, grasping him by the shoulders and steering him toward the stairs. He bent his head to the boy's ear. What Lauren picked up was certainly not meant for her to hear. But she had damned good hearing.
"Listen up. From now on I pick my own dates, okay? You know I don't like those overdone, plastic-fantastic women. And this one looks like she was run over by a cotton-candy wagon."
Lauren's cheeks flamed beneath her blush-on. It was anger more than humiliation that made her blood rise. All remnants of her good-sport attitude had flown. She took a few sharply clicking steps to the foot of the stairway as the man descended, and she fixed her gaze on his face.
"Now you listen up, bucko. If there weren't a child present, I'd probably suggest you do something to yourself that doesn't seem to be" — her gaze quickly but pointedly slid below his waist — "anatomically possible." One low blow deserves another.
The man's eyes didn't move from her, but the lids stretched considerably. Ben, who still lingered near the top of the stairs, pretended to sneeze, an awkward cover for the sniggers he was trying to suppress.
Lauren grabbed the newel post and looked up at the boy. "Sorry," she told him before turning her attention back to his father, who seemed on the verge of saying something.
He didn't get a chance. Lauren was on a roll.
"You know, Mister `Celebration Time', I'm surprised you don't find me absolutely irresistible." With a dramatic flourish, she indicated the overpopulated lawn on the other side of the front door. "You're obviously the freakin' king of plastic. There's enough of it in your yard to subsidize six Chinese factories and a foundering Wal-Mart store!"
"Don't forget the electric company," Ben called down.
"Thank you," Lauren called up to him.
"Benjamin, go to your room!" Hank said irritably.
Lauren knew she'd worn out her thin mat of a welcome. She turned, marched to the front door, and flung it open, preparing to flee this bastion of bad taste and worse manners. The lights blinded her for a moment, and she nearly lost her footing on the porch steps.
She heard Hank's voice at her back. "Wal-Mart stores never founder!"
"Yowza. Real snappy come-back," Lauren muttered to herself. Still walking away, she threw up a hand. "Woolworth's, then."
"God, where have you been? There are no dime stores anymore." Hank's voice rose incrementally the closer Lauren got to her car. "Besides," he shouted, "five-and-dime merchandise was mostly from Japan and Taiwan."
Lauren could hear his boots — or what she assumed were boots — clomping across the porch and down into the yard. She abruptly stopped and turned to face him. So, he was one of those types who just had to have the last word, huh? Well, he wouldn't have it with her.
His left hand was fondly, protectively caressing the candescent plastic nose of Rudolph. "And a lot of it has become very collectible," he added almost petulantly.
Lauren bent forward at the waist, the better to launch her final salvo. "I don't need a mini-course in retailing to know crap is crap!"
"And I don't need my glasses to know an overdone woman when I see one!" Hank hesitated a moment, as if he felt he'd gone too far, then shoved his hands in his pockets and strode back indoors.
"Humbug!" Lauren kicked the figure of Tiny Tim, hoping to crack his crutch. Instead, she cracked her toe. Doubling over, she strung together "Shitshitshitshit...shit...shit. Shit!" — sounding like a steam locomotive laboriously braking. Muttering more invectives under her breath, she pulled off her right shoe and hobbled, wincing at the feel of the cold asphalt beneath her foot, to the car.
She'd forgotten that a good deal of yard statuary was made of concrete.
When she was safely in her vehicle, she shot one more resentful glance at Santa's Suburban Workshop. Then something caught her eye. She peered at the house, making sure...
Hank the hunk stood at a window, arms crossed over his sizable chest, watching her and laughing.
"At least I have hair!" she shouted.
from Mrs. Claws, copyright (c) K. Z. Snow
Available from Cerridwen Press.