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Holiday Wishes: An Anthology

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9780373881208: Holiday Wishes: An Anthology
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If I Make It Through December by Kate Austin

From balance sheets to blue plate specials, Heather James has a lot to learn about running a restaurant. But a well-informed business plan isn't enough to prepare her for the holiday rush— or head chef Sam Cappelletti. Is lasting love the bottom line
Who Needs June in December, Anyway? by Stevi Mittman

Teddi Bayer could use some holiday magic this year, especially since Grandma June is making everything worse. If only there was a magical menorah Teddi could rub, and pouf! But rubbing it while humming "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" seems to be having unexpected consequences. Hum. You have to wonder
The Perfect Chrismtas by Mary Schramski

Growing up as a lonely child, Gwen Anderson always dreamed of a Christmas pulled from the pages of a Currier & Ives illustration. She's long since abandoned that dream. Until her mother realizes that she didn't give her daughter enough time as a child. And she vows to now give Gwen

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You know how there's good luck and bad luck? And then there's the bad luck that gets all gussied up in fancy clothes and expensive shoes pretending it's good luck?

That's the kind of luck that came knocking on my door on a rainy and cold November day.

"Heather James?" the man at my office door asked.

I examined him carefully before I answered. He was in his fifties, I guessed, but his solemnity of manner made him appear older. Much older. He wore a black suit that fitted like it had been made for him—it probably had been—a subdued silk tie—definitely not the two for twenty dollar kind—and a blindingly white shirt, with initials on the cuffs.

I could see how he'd made it past the receptionist without fuss or announcement.

"Yes?" I answered, standing from behind my desk, kept spotlessly clean for just these events. Not that this kind of event had ever happened before. In over twenty years, no client had ever come to my office. I didn't do clients, I did paper. And calculations. The occasional e-mail and even fewer telephone calls. "Ms. James," he said, holding out his tanned hand, shooting his wrist from beneath the starched cuff, the wrist embellished with a discreet but obviously real gold watch.

My impression of him, already at the top end of our client scale, moved upward. His portfolio, his tax planning, had to be one of our largest.

So why was he in my office?

It was immutable practice for clients to be seen in the office of our senior partner. Four or five times the size of mine, it contained leather furniture, mahogany tables, real art—I glanced over at my poster of Canaletto's View of the Ducal Palace in Venice—and an executive washroom which I snuck in to use, always before the cleaning staff had arrived to clean it, on the many late nights when I was the only one in the office.

I shook his bone-dry and polished hand and waited. "You are Heather James?"

I nodded. "Might I see some identification?"

I frowned, but remembering the stories I'd heard from my associates about some of our clients, I complied, handing him my driver's license without looking at it myself. I knew I looked like a troll under a bridge, my hair flattened on my head, my face pasty and my eyes lost in my head. I never looked at my license. Or the photo on my passport. Partly because the photographs were hideous and partly because I didn't want the reminder of how old I was.

How old? Forty-five. Still single. Still saving for that retirement fund in lieu of dating.

He perused my license, handed it back to me and nodded. "Your mother's name?"

This was beginning to feel like a call from my credit card company. But I'd neither lost nor overused my credit card— I never carried a balance, I'm a tax planner for God's sake. It was zero. As always. Paying interest on credit cards was a complete waste of money, money that could more properly reside in my retirement fund.

I answered anyway, "Donna. Donna Luongi," using her maiden name because I'd somehow gotten into the credit card company mode.

"Do you have proof of that?"

Weirder and weirder. But I'd bought into the first weirdness and now my curiosity—usually well under control—was out of it. Control, that is.

I turned to the locked fireproof filing cabinet beside my desk and pulled out my personal file.

"My birth certificate," I said with a flourish. "See." I pointed to my mother's name. "Right there."

"Ms. James, did you ever meet your Great-Aunt Francesca?" I didn't know I had a Great-Aunt Francesca.

"She was your grandmother's baby sister."

I didn't know my grandmother. Or any other of my mother's relatives, for that matter. They were all dead before I was born, or at least that's what my mother told me. Their deaths were followed by my parents' when I was twenty.

I nodded and waited for the next revelation. This conversation had definitely moved out of the credit call pattern and into the unknown great-aunt dying and leaving me a fortune pattern.

"Francesca died almost six months ago," he continued.

"It took some time to find you." The accusation in his voice was clear. Obviously, I should have kept in touch with Great-Aunt Francesca even though I hadn't known she existed.

"You are her only living relative and her heir."

"Oh," I said, flabbergasted by this confirmation of the pattern.

Now, of course, he would tell me I'd inherited some decrepit old house in the middle of nowhere where I'd have to spend a year before it became mine to sell. I'd seen this movie before.

I contemplated the size of my retirement fund and grinned. The inheritance meant nothing to me except headaches.

"Do you know Francesca's Ristorante downtown?"

Not at all the question I'd been expecting.

"I was there once," I replied. "Too noisy for me." What I meant was that it was too Italian, too exuberant, too, well, too much of everything. Food and noise and music and people. Too much wine. Too much color. Too much excitement.

Not the kind of place Heather James, who spent her days and nights engrossed in spreadsheets, would go to more than once.

"You're the new owner."

I did all the things a prudent accountant and tax planner should do. I got a copy of the will from Mr. Simon. I asked for and had delivered to me Francesca's accounting and personnel files.

She had very well organized files and I tried not to wonder whether I'd inherited my passion for order from her. It certainly hadn't come from either of my parents. They had died in debt and with their papers in such a mess it had taken me months to make sense of them and another year to bring everything up to date.

I checked the lease, the taxes, the zoning. I did bylaw searches and corporate searches. I met with Francesca's oneday-a-week bookkeeper.

It took me seven days, but at the end of it I was confident that I knew the appropriate asking price for the restaurant— whether I decided to sell it as an ongoing business or for its assets. And I was confident that I'd get it and that I'd have the money before the end of the year. Perfect for tax planning.

Now all I had to do was make a visual inspection and I could list it. I always did an inspection of my projects. Over the years, that inspection had saved my clients a lot of money and me a boatload of aggravation. One dinner two years ago was not a sufficient inspection.

I took Monday as a vacation day. Francesca's keys were in my pocket and I knew the restaurant didn't open until noon. I set my alarm for five-thirty and figured on three or even four hours before anyone might show up.

I'd do my inspection and be out of there before anyone even knew I'd been.

The restaurant looked a bit worn in the gloomy predawn almost-light. Without the neon sign, dusty curtains drawn, it appeared tawdry and sad. I tried to remember how it had been two years earlier but could bring forward only an impression of light and color and noise.

Obviously, Francesca had let the place go over the past couple of years. That's what happened when you got old and kept working and that's why my retirement plan was so important. I didn't intend to be working past my prime. It was embarrassing. I'd rather be holed up in my paid-for condo in some sunny place in the south with other people just like me.

I reluctantly revised my asking price downwards. I knew that a quick sale depended on the right price. No one in their right mind would pay top dollar for a place like this. No matter how good the numbers might appear.

I patted myself on the back for doing the on-site inspection as I put my key in the lock. It would save me a lot of grief. I only hoped there were no more nasty surprises inside.

There were.

One at least. A man in white—no, not a ghost, I told myself—shot out of a chair at the front desk.

"Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my restaurant?"

"Your restaurant?" I screamed back, channeling my mother for the first time in my grown-up life.

Heather James did not scream. I took a deep breath and tried again.

"Who are you?" Modulating my tone from a scream to a loud but calm yell.

"I," he said, pounding his chest, "am Sam Cappelletti and this is my restaurant."

He waved his arms around like a conductor, encompassing every inch of the dim and dusty room. The chairs, the tables, the linen, the unlit lights and the silverware.

"This beautiful place is mine. I—" pounding his chest again "—I am the chef."

"Then it's not your restaurant, is it? You're just the cook. I..." I yelled, taking a page from his book and pounding my chest, "am the new owner. This is my restaurant."

Suddenly, the ape man turned to a lover. He threw his arms around me, hugging so hard I was certain I heard my ribs crack.

"You're the new owner? Francesca's family?"

His voice, low and sexy with a faint accent—Italian, of course—tickled in my ear. I didn't care if it felt good, Sam Cappelletti was a long way out of line. I pulled away, drew myself to my full five feet ten inches, and smiled when I realized I was at least an inch taller than him. I poked him in the chest.

"Back off," I yelled, not even trying to stop myself this time. I blamed the noise on the restaurant; you couldn't help but yell in this noisy place. I ignored the fact that except for my loud voice there wasn't a sound in it. The memory made me do it.

"Yes, I'm the new owner. But not for long."

I waved the listing agreement at him.

"I just have to sign this and Francesca's Ristorante is as good as sold. Now," I said, briskly, "let's turn the lights on and you can give me a tour."

The look on Sam Cappelletti's face could have curdled milk. It stopped my forward momentum dead. A combination of rage and a sorrow so strong he might have lost a parent or a child. I sympathized with that grief, softening for a moment, then chose to ignore it.

I examined him for the first time, looking past the chef whites. He wasn't tall, but the body beneath his clothes was strong—I'd felt the strength when he hugged me. Tanned olive skin matched his dark eyes and curly black hair.

He interrupted my examination with one of his own, nowhere near as admiring. His eyes dismissed my navy suit, white shirt and low-heeled pumps. He sniffed at my short, neat haircut and minimal makeup.

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