To my loving grandparents and one sweet kitty.
One Month Before Christmas
Today, there was a letter in the mailbox. Betty reached in for the velvet white envelope, her feeble hand trembling. It was addressed to her and her husband, Bruce. She clutched the envelope and climbed back up the hill to their log cabin. Cool, white mist wrapped around her legs. Once she reached the top of the hill, she could no longer wait. She opened the envelope and pulled out a piece of matching velvet white paper.
Her hand flew to her heart. Her granddaughter Amanda would be arriving next month.
She had so many wonderful memories of her second grandchild, particularly during this time of year. As a little girl, Amanda had always been the first to try out the frozen pond out back, ice-skating for hours upon hours. She was also the first downstairs on Christmas morning, sliding down their wooden banister to make her entrance. She loved this holiday—she took after her father in that regard.
Amanda grew up to be a TV news anchor and was working in Wilmington, North Carolina. She abruptly moved there from New York two years ago to get a fresh start. For the last two Christmases, her seat at the dinner table remained empty. Amanda told her parents that she couldn’t get the time off from work, but Bruce and Betty knew better. It broke their hearts.
Betty entered the house and walked into the kitchen. Bruce sat at the square oak table engrossed in his crossword puzzle. She waved the letter slowly.
“Is that for us?”
She nodded. “It says Amanda will be arriving next month.”
“Amanda?” His eyes widened, and he set his pen down. “How old is she now?” He looked up toward the ceiling. “Thirty?”
She nodded and handed him the letter.
“I’m surprised she’s joining us so soon.”
Betty watched her husband study the paper closely. He rose and peered out the kitchen window in the direction of the mailbox. “Maybe it’s a mistake?” he asked, hopefulness in his voice.
Without a word, Betty reached over and claimed the letter from Bruce’s shaky hand. She folded it, placing it carefully back in its envelope. It was best to leave him alone with his thoughts.
She walked into the living room and took a seat in her favorite rocking chair. Setting the envelope on a nearby end table, she picked up a pair of knitting needles and yarn.
The red and green meshed string immediately attracted a buff-colored tabby who sauntered over from her napping spot near the stone fireplace. The cat jumped onto Betty’s lap, rubbing its soft head against the ball of yarn.
Forcing a smile, she set her needles aside and began petting the purring feline. “Sydney,” she said, patting the cat on its head. “Amanda’s coming home next month. Won’t you be happy to see her after all this time? She’ll be here in time to join us for Christmas dinner.”
With that realization, a tear rolled down her cheek.
The mayor of Wilmington was high on top of the naughty list this year. News anchor Amanda Turner was going to make sure he received a well-deserved stocking full of coal to hang in his jail cell.
She stood in the control booth and reviewed her notes. Minutes ago, her script had been successfully uploaded into the teleprompter. She was finally ready to break the news. For months, she had worked tirelessly to expose Mayor O’Malley for mishandling his reelection funds. Lavish vacations, special gifts for his wife, and expensive outings around town with local celebrities were just a few ways he spent his supporters’ donations. His inexcusable behavior was about to be revealed. Amanda would make sure that the honest, hard-working people of Wilmington knew the truth and that WENC news was on their side.
Her producer, Jeff Wakefield, tested out the shot of Jenny Jenkins, a field reporter stationed outside the mayor’s office where the press conference would later take place.
“Good morning, Jenny,” Amanda said, leaning over Jeff’s shoulder. “You look great. Ready to break the story?”
“I’m ready.” Jenny gave them a thumbs-up signal. “Talk to you soon.”
Jeff turned to pat Amanda’s back. “Santa Claus certainly came early for us, didn’t he?”
She laughed. “Yes, he did.” Busting the mayor had been a long time coming. It was a real team effort—with the exception of one particular colleague—her tall, dark, and arrogant co-anchor who was now ten minutes late.
Rumor had it he’d had some fun at the staff Christmas party last night. Not that she paid attention to office gossip—nor had she attended the event. She wasn’t a fan of Christmas these days. Besides, she was way too busy taking down the mayor.
She set aside her backup notes and fished out her compact from her purse to check her makeup one last time. The news station didn’t have a professional makeup artist for the on-air talent, but her assistant, Lacy Cavanaugh, had given her a hand this morning to make sure her face was flawless.
Suddenly, a blue eye appeared in her mirror.
“Good morning, Brenda Starr. Ready for your big moment?” Tate Ryan stood directly behind her. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”
Amanda snapped the compact shut, crossed the studio to the anchor desk, and took her seat. Her eyes zoomed in on his tie. “Seriously?” She pointed to the red and green stripes.
“What?” Tate sat in his chair and spun around.
“Just trying to be festive. Do you have something against Christmas?”
Amanda ignored him. She always wore royal blue on Wednesdays, and he knew it. Lacy always sent him an e-mail each afternoon, reminding him what color to wear the next day. It helped ensure they didn’t clash on camera.
He’d worn the tie to get a rise out of her. Typical Tate. She smoothed her straight blonde hair along her jaw line. Well, it wouldn’t work today. This was her moment, and nothing he could say, do, or wear was going to ruin it.
Jeff stepped up to the desk. “Nice work, you two. You’re quite the dynamic duo.”
“Thanks,” Tate responded and flashed a smile toward Amanda. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. It figured Tate would try to take some of the credit. It really didn’t surprise her. No matter. Jeff had agreed to let her break the story.
“All right. Let’s give the mayor a Christmas gift he can rewind and replay into the New Year.” Jeff’s eyes twinkled. “Ho, ho, ho . . .”
“Break a leg, Ace.” Tate winked.
Ernie, their cameraman, signaled. “Three, two, one.”
Amanda stared into the camera and smiled brightly. “Good morning, Wilmington. I’m Amanda Turner.”
“And I’m Tate Ryan. Your morning news starts right now. Thanks for joining us.”
She took a deep breath, her expression serious. This was it. Her time to shine. “In breaking news—” She paused, waiting for her next few lines to appear on the teleprompter.
Something was wrong. Where was the next line? The words on the screen stopped moving. The machine appeared to be stuck.
She looked down at the table and her heart galloped. Her backup notes were not on the desk. Dammit. She must have left them in the control room. This couldn’t be happening. Not today. Please work. Please work. Improvisation was not her strong suit. You can do this. Say something. “In breaking news . . .” she repeated. That was it; her voice stalled out much like the teleprompter.
“In news you’re hearing first on WENC,” Tate interjected.
Ernie swung the camera over to Tate.
“An investigation has uncovered that Mayor Chris O’Malley allegedly used reelection funds for personal use. Our Jenny Jenkins is reporting live from outside the mayor’s office where a press conference is scheduled for 10 A.M. Jenny, what are you hearing? Will the mayor be addressing these allegations personally?”
Amanda’s jaw dropped. She was unable to comprehend what had just happened. Tate had broken her story! She motioned for him to toss it back to her, but he either didn’t see her or didn’t want to. All she could do was listen as Tate fired one question after another to the reporter. Three minutes later, he wrapped up.
“Thanks, Jenny. We’ll continue to provide coverage on this explosive story as it develops.”
The camera zoomed in on Amanda, snapping her back to the moment. The teleprompter was working and running the next few lines. Words originally meant for Tate, but were now hers.
Humiliated, she forced a smile and read the next line. “In other news . . .”
Tate chuckled and removed his tie. He didn’t care for bright red—and with green stripes, he could easily be mistaken for one of Santa’s elves. That is, except for his height. He only wore the tie to mess with Amanda. Opening his desk drawer, he pulled out a more suitable royal blue one and put it on.
She was infuriated with him. No question about it. After the newscast, she’d stomped away from the anchor desk without saying a word. How was her freezing under pressure his fault? She should have thanked him, not given him the cold shoulder.
His door suddenly flew open.
Speak of the devil.
And she was still as gorgeous as ever—even with imaginary darts spewing from her beautiful green eyes. He was a glutton for punishment.