It’s not even Halloween, yet. Personally, I have six family birthdays, Halloween, and Thanksgiving to celebrate before I can don the holly and deck my halls. But when it comes to reading holiday romances? It’s never too soon. The Authors of Main Street is a great place to find a sweet romance filled with cocoa-sipping people in sweaters snuggling beneath blankets before roaring fires.
So, even though my house is decorated with faux-spiderwebs, pumpkins, and flashing orange and purple lights, and I’m sipping pumpkin-spice cocoa, I’m still lighting a fire, snuggling beneath quilts, and settling in for a sweet holiday romance.
How about you? What are you reading? Here’s the one I wrote for the Authors of Main Street Christmas box set last here.
Mustering courage and outrage, Lauren pulled her Honda up to Triple Arch Bay’s wrought-iron gates. A pair of lions on stone pillars frowned at her. She would not be intimidated. The scam had to stop. Determined to prevent others from falling for the lies and false promises that had robbed her of not only her money but also her dreams, Lauren squared her shoulders and lowered her window to speak to the guard.
A handsome young man about thirty years her junior with the name Sean embroidered above his shirt pocket greeted her. Lauren flashed her most winning smile, the one she trotted out when facing apathetic students or their difficult parents. “I’m here to see Donna Johansson at Iris Lane.”
Sean checked his tablet. “I’m sorry, she didn’t phone you in. Would you like me to call her?”
“No. That’s not necessary. I’m just popping by. I’ll be in and out in a heartbeat.”
“I’m sorry. Without an appointment, I can’t let you pass,” he said.
Lauren changed tactics. “Of course, she’s not going to give me an appointment, Sean.” It had been hard enough to get the woman’s address. “She’s a scam artist.”
The young man quirked an eyebrow and looked mildly interested, but then came back with, “I get it, but even more reason to not let you in, right? I bet this woman really doesn’t want to talk to you. If I let you pass, I’d lose my job.”
Sean was like the troll guarding the bridge. Lauren blinked back tears, and the young man must have noticed.
Leaning forward, he braced his hand on the roof of Lauren’s Honda. “Listen,” he said in a conspiratorial low tone, “the beaches are public, right? If you can find a meter on PCH, you can take the beach until you find the stairs accessing the neighborhood.” He winked at her as if he’d done her a favor.
Lauren had spent the last twenty years living in nearby and not quite as posh Rancho Allegro, a coastal community south of Laguna, and knew there was no such thing as a private beach in California. She also knew outcroppings of rocks protected Triple Arch Bay. To access the bay, she’d either have to swim or pick her way across the shoals. The last thing she wanted to do was arrive at Donna Johansson’s house looking like something that had washed up on the shore.
A horn behind her beeped.
Sean, the troll, slapped the roof of the Honda as if he were patting the head of a well-behaved dog, gave her a toothy smile, and motioned for her to drive away.
Lauren, with a thumping heart, knew what she had to do. She pulled to the side to allow the Tesla behind her to pass, then, putting her foot on the gas, she roared through the gates.
Sean shouted, “Hey!” but no sirens blared. Helicopters didn’t fall out of the sky. Armed security guards didn’t race after her. Gripping the wheel, Lauren barreled down the tiny street, passing the McMansions lining the cliffs overlooking the blue sparkling ocean.
She tightened her grip on the wheel, thinking, Cerulean Skye, you are going to pay.
The GPS guided Lauren to a two-story Cape Cod wannabe surrounded by a white picket fence and a hedge of rosebushes in need of pruning. Closer inspection told her the cherry-red front door and window shutters needed a fresh coat of paint, and the shingle roof also needed updating. Cerulean Skye was having financial troubles.
As well it should.
And, thanks to Lauren, the problems were about to escalate. She thumped her car into park and bolstered her resolve before climbing out and slamming the door behind her.
Cerulean Skye was going to fall. She would make it happen.
Princess yapped. Ron shot a glance at the door. A shadow moved on the porch, eliciting another woof and growl from Princess.
His mom’s high heels clacked across the tile and into the entry. She opened the door and waved in her best friend, Lois. Whispers floated Ron’s way, but with his earbuds blasting white noise, he couldn’t make out their conversation. Which was fine; he was even less interested in Lois than he was in Princess.
Mom strode across the room and placed her hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, darling, but I have to go.”
The last word registered. “Go?” Ron removed his earbuds to stare at Mom. She wore a pink pantsuit and carried a white leather bag. She’d parked a pair of suitcases in the entry. “This is sudden.” She hadn’t mentioned travel plans since his arrival last week.
“Yes,” she said. “You don’t mind taking care of Princess, do you?”
Ron and Princess exchanged glances. The standard poodle curled her lip. Ron stared at the dog with distaste. “What? You mean feed her?” Princess lived on a diet of smelly canned food. Just looking at it made his stomach churn. Listening to the dog wolf down her food was the worst thing about staying at his mom’s house.
Mom ruffled Princess’s ears. “And walk her and make sure you’re here when the groomer comes.”
He’d have to pick up her poop? Not going to happen. “How long are you going to be gone?” If it was more than a day or two, Princess was definitely going to a pet hotel.
Mom shot Lois a glance. “I can’t say.”
“Where are you going?” Ron asked.
“Belize? This time of year?” It would be sweltering in mid-August, and Mom hated breaking a sweat. That was why she played golf and not tennis.
“London,” Lois chirped.
Thanks to an ample number of yoga sessions and plastic surgeries, both Lois and Mom looked closer to his age than their own. Their Botox cheeks and fat bee-stung lips made him twitchy and uncomfortable.
“Which is it? Belize or London?” Ron pulled away from his computer to study the trio before him. Two of them were lying. “Why can’t you take Princess with you?”
Lois tapped her size-six shoe on the floor and glared at Ron.
Mom dropped a kiss on his cheek and patted his shoulder. “You two will be just fine.” She breezed for the door and picked up her bags, leaving a waft of nose-tickling perfume in her wake. “Don’t try to call, I may be out of service for a while.”
The front door opened and slammed. Moments later, someone started a car engine.
“That was unusual,” Ron told Princess.
The poodle stalked across the room and flopped onto her bed without looking at him. If he were to get a dog of his own, he’d choose an easygoing Golden Retriever or a well-trained Labrador. Poodles, especially ones trimmed in what Mom called the Lion Cut, were too fussy. Mom spent much more on grooming Princess than Ron did on himself. Which wasn’t too surprising. In Boston, Ron had been going to Marv at the barbershop specializing in military cuts for years. With a pang, he realized that since he was relocating to Southern California, he’d have to find another barber.
He hated change.
Drumming his fingers, he tried to refocus on his research, but the riddle of Mom’s strange behavior puzzled him like a buzzing gnat. He hit a contact on his phone. Moments later, Margo answered.
“Where’s Mom going?” Ron asked.
“I don’t know,” Margo returned. “The spa? The store?”
“No, she had bags. Told me to take care of her dog.”
“Didn’t you ask her?”
“She told me Belize, but Lois said London.”
“That’s weird. She didn’t mention any travel plans yesterday. In fact,” Margo paused as if checking a calendar, “we have a tee time tomorrow at noon.”
Ron grunted. He despised golf. Mostly because golfers paraded around in such ridiculous clothes—his sister being the exception. Ron yearned, for not the first time, for Mom to be more like the seventy-five-year-old women who stayed at home to garden, knit, or bake cookies, and less like Lois.
“Try phoning her,” Ron said. “Maybe she’ll be more forthcoming with you.” He ended the call without a goodbye.
Princess stirred on her bed. She lifted her pointy snout and sniffed the air as if something foul had blown in. Princess disliked most things and people, including Ron. Shaking her head and making the bell around her neck jingle, she scrambled to her paws before trotting from the room. A low growl gurgled in her throat. Princess yipped.
Ron ignored the dog and went back to his current project. Since the success of his last patent, he no longer needed an income, but he did need the mental challenge only research provided.
Yipping turned to barking. Princess dashed into the room. Standing a foot away from Ron with her lion’s mane quivering and her paws spread, she woofed a panicked warning.
“Relax,” Ron growled, adjusting his earbuds and upping the volume of the white noise.
Princess sprinted back to the front entry. Her barking escalated to frenzy mode. Ron waited for the bell to ring, announcing the arrival of a package. Mom seemed to average about three deliveries a week.
Only half paying attention, Ron listened to Princess scrambling down the hall, through the kitchen, into the laundry room, and banging out her doggy door. When he heard a woman squeal, he reluctantly took out his earbuds.
Ron peeked out the window and saw a woman scrambling toward his brother-in-law’s vintage T-Bird. Snarling and snapping, Princess circled the car. The woman jumped onto the back bumper and leaped onto the car’s rooftop. Her red skirt pushed up her thighs. One foot wore a wedge-heel shoe, and the other was bare.
Princess bounded about, yipping and growling. The woman’s white button-down blouse had come undone, affording him a tantalizing glance of her lacy white bra. Ron, feeling unsure and a little like a voyeur, forced himself to stop watching the woman and her popping buttons and search for the missing shoe. Ah, there it was, beside the left tire.
Clearly, he had to do something. If nothing else, retrieve Princess. Could the woman press charges? Technically, she was trespassing – and interrupting his work. Once again, he, who had earned two PhDs from ivy-league schools, had been bested by the dog. After stomping to the laundry room, Ron grabbed Princess’s faux-diamond-studded pink leash off the hook by the door and headed out.
He froze in the driveway. Why did this woman, despite the look of terror on her face, the mussed hair, and the frantically waving limbs, seem familiar? They had met, he was sure of it.
Their eyes locked. Ron tried to shake himself free from her gaze, but her seething anger paralyzed him.
“Is this your dog?” she called over Princess’s incessant noise.
“No.” Technically, it wasn’t a lie, although he was responsible for her until Mom’s return. “But I know where she lives.”
“Where’s her owner?”
“Obviously, not here.” Ron strode across the lawn. The dangling leash bounced against his thigh with every step. “Princess! Hush!”
The dog pranced away from him.
Mrs. Hickson, Mom’s octogenarian neighbor, wearing a pink fluffy housecoat and a pair of knitted socks, emerged from her house and frowned when Princess sprang over the picket fence and landed in a flowerbed. “Ron!” Mrs. Hickson barked.
Princess galloped around Mrs. Hickson’s yard, kicking up dirt and turf and knocking over garden gnomes.
The woman slid off the car, buttoned her blouse to conceal her bra, and smoothed down her skirt. She narrowed her eyes at Ron, studying him. Did she recognize him, too?
“Your shoe is under that tire.” Ron pointed to the wedged-heel lying on its side and looking, somehow, forlorn.
“Thank you,” she spat out.
Ron froze, mesmerized, when she squatted to retrieve her lost heel.
Princess, though, clearly made up for Ron’s immobility with her own exuberance.
“Control this animal!” Mrs. Hickson screamed. “Or I’ll call the shelter.”
Ron wished she would, although he couldn’t admit this to anyone. “Princess!” He slapped his thigh to get the dog’s attention.
Princess took one long, taunting look at him before vaulting over the picket fence and tearing down the street. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on the perspective, the tree-lined streets in the quiet neighborhood had little traffic this time of day, other than the surfboard-toting teenagers and wetsuit-clad retired businessmen.
“She is your dog!” The woman had readjusted all her clothes but still wore the livid expression. Her hair had been swept up in a bun at the back of her neck the last time he’d seen her. Now, it framed her face in a messy cloud of curls. Her cheeks were vivid pink. Last time, she’d had on dark red lipstick. He liked women in lipstick, but they terrified him when they frowned.
Or smiled, for that matter.
“No, she’s not.” Ron stepped closer to inspect Chuck’s car. The T-Bird was his gear-headed brother-in-law’s latest acquisition. Ron had no idea why Chuck had parked it in Mom’s driveway, but he had a pretty good idea how Chuck would react if he knew a strange woman had been rolling around on top of it. He’d blow a gasket.
Somehow, Ron needed to corner and fetch Princess, but despite the anger rolling off this woman, he couldn’t pull himself away. What was the draw? Her beauty? Could he be that shallow? Her puzzling familiarity? The last had to be it. Where and how had they met? After all, Ron had just moved to Laguna two weeks earlier. He hadn’t even closed on his condo yet. That was why he’d taken residence at Mom’s and co-existed with Princess.
Which explained what he was doing here, but not why the woman had taken a perch on his brother-in-law’s car. “What are you doing here?” Ron asked.
“I’m looking for Donna Johansson.” Her words came out in angry little huffs. It would be cute if she wasn’t so frightening.
“Donna is away for a…while.” He made a calculated guess given the number of bags Mom had taken.
The woman’s eyes narrowed to slits. “You know her?”
“It’s a tight-knit community,” he hedged. “Donna has lived here for more than thirty years.” Mom had won the house in the divorce, despite the fact that it had been in Dad’s family for generations.
“I need to talk to her,” the woman ground out. “Immediately.”
“If you give me your number, I can have her call you.”
“Why don’t you just give me her number?”
Knowing Mom would be furious if he did, Ron balked. “It’ll be better if I pass your number on to her.”
The woman sucked in a deep breath before saying, “She won’t return my call.”
Probably not, Ron silently acknowledged, but he, at least, would have done his part. “It’s the best I can do.”
The woman strode over, fussed through her purse, then slapped a business card into his hand.
Lauren Hallstrom, author with Cerulean Skye Publishing
Ron felt slightly sick. Cerulean Skye Publishing—Mom’s latest venture. Until a few years ago, Mom had been a real estate agent. Before that, a make-up artist selling fifty-dollar tubes of lipstick. And before that, she’d been an organization guru. Mom had the ability to reinvent herself more than anyone he knew. Maybe that was why his biologist father had fallen in love with her. She was more chameleon than human.
There were things about himself that Ron would change if he could—like the ability to converse with lovely women parked on cars—but he lacked the skill. He was more like his father than his mother in that regard.
With another angry huff, the woman turned on her pretty wedged heels and limped away from him without another backward glance. He watched as she tossed her lone shoe into the Honda, climbed in after it, started the engine, and rumbled away.
He stared after her as memory returned. He’d first seen her at a literary event two years ago. He’d gone to try and meet up with Mom. Back then, he’d been a professor at MIT, and a conference had brought him to California. He’d taken the opportunity to meet up with Mom, but the only time she’d been able to see him was during what she called a literature soiree. Lauren had been playing the piano. Rachmaninoff, one of his favorite composers. Joseph, his mentor, had always listened to classical music at the lab while he worked, and Ron had carried on the tradition even after Joseph had retired.
Ron stood rooted in the driveway, caught in the flash of memory…
Mom spotted him and lifted a bony arm to wave him over. With heavy feet, he navigated the room, skirting past the tables where people in fancy clothes sat sipping wine and nibbling on pretentious pieces of food posing as art.
“Darling!” Mom stood to embrace him in a scrawny hug. Had she always been so brittle? He chided himself for not visiting more often.
She pulled away and laced her fingers through his. “I’m so glad we could connect.” Releasing his hand, she ushered him toward her table.
Ron pushed his fingers through his hair. “I wish I could stay longer.”
She reclaimed her chair and motioned for Ron to take the seat beside her. “And I wish I hadn’t already committed to this soiree.” She lowered her voice. “Thanks to Lois, we were able to smuggle you in.”
Ron sat beside Mom.
“You remember Lois, darling?” Mom laid her hand on her friend’s arm.
“Of course,” Ron said. “How are you, Lois?”
Lois studied him with shrewd eyes and stretched her plump lips into a smile that was as fake as her boobs. “I’m well.”
Ron considered the plate before him. It held what looked like a scallop, topped with a cherry tomato and some sort of green and orange shoots. A puce-colored sauce had been drizzled across the plate. His stomach, in want of a chicken breast, growled.
Ron glanced around at their tablemates—two women who each had two stacks of books at their elbows as if their towers were competing for height, a man lost in thought scribbling on a notepad, another man in Coke-bottle-lens glasses with his nose buried in a spy novel. These were true bookworms. Mom and Lois didn’t fit at this table.
Music began to play. Most around him paid little attention to the swell of sound coming from the corner of the room, but Ron swiveled to take in the woman at the piano. She really was lovely. Willowy, blonde, pink-cheeked. Her fingers stroked the keys with grace. Could he muster the nerve to talk to her? No. What would be the point? His work was in Massachusetts, and she and her piano were in Orange County.
A middle-aged woman in a red dress stopped beside Lois. “I’m so excited about this,” she gushed. “I emailed you my manuscript immediately after our conversation. Did you get it?”
Lois plastered on a polite smile and winked at Mom. “Let me see.” Lois pulled her phone out of her Kate Spade bag and tapped on it. “Why, yes. Here it is. Hadley Brighton, right?”
The woman’s expression fell. “No, Mary Hadley. I sent you The Tales from the Edge.”
“That’s right.” Lois regained her composure. “Riveting.” Lois laid her hand on Mom’s arm. “Do you remember my telling you about it?” She turned back to Mary. “This is Donna Johansson. She’s the mastermind behind Cerulean Skye Publishing.”
“You’re a publisher?” Mary placed her hand on her heart as if to slow its beating.
Wait. What? Ron forgot all about Rachmaninoff and the lovely woman at the piano, and he turned his attention to Mom. The realtor. Not publisher.
“She’s definitely someone to know,” Lois said.
Everyone else at the table lasered their attention on Mom. She flushed beneath their collective gazes.
“I’ve never heard of Cerulean Skye Publishing,” the woman with the tallest stack of books said.
Me neither, Ron thought.
That was the first he’d ever heard of Cerulean Skye Publishing. Now, as he watched the retreating Honda, he wished it had been the last. Just like he wished this wouldn’t be the last he’d see of the lovely Lauren Hallstrom.
“Dude!” Jazz, his barefoot surfer neighbor dressed in a wetsuit approached and shook Ron out of the memory. Jazz had tied his surfboard’s cord around Princess’s collar. “You gotta keep this dog locked up. She was scaring all the kids at the park. She snarfed some old lady’s sandwich.”
Princess, with her tongue lolling, gave Ron a haughty look. Ron clipped on the dog’s leash and untied the surfboard cord. “Thanks, Jazz” he said, “It won’t happen again.” Although, he didn’t know if that was a promise he could keep, but he would try. Just like he would try to see Lauren Hallstrom again.