Merry & Bright
for TOYS FOR TOTS
Title: Merry & Bright
Genre: Contemporary Holiday Romance Charity Anthology
Charity: TOY FOR TOTS – 100% of the proceeds will be donated to TOYS FOR TOTS
Release Date: November 25, 2016
Authors: Tammy Falkner, Sarra Cannon, Marquita Valentine, Sawyer Bennett, Ava Stone, Jane Charles, Zoe Dawson, Regina Cole
Available from 11/25/16 thru 1/1/17 ONLY!
CHRISTMAS WITH THE REEDS by Tammy Falkner
A SEASON FOR HOPE by Sarra Cannon
ALL FOR YOU by Marquita Valentine
IF I RETURN by Sawyer Bennett
STAY WITH ME by Ava Stone
BRAVE by Zoe DAwson
LIGHT UP THE TREE (abridged) by Regina Cole
STILL RATTLED by Jane Charles
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF
STILL RATTLED BELOW
Alex “Douche” Dosek isn’t really a douche, or at least not anymore, and I should probably stop thinking about him that way. I get why he resented me. He didn’t have the whole story, and after his mother shit on him the way she did, of course he’d think I was just as heartless because I had abandoned my baby.
But, now he gets it. If he didn’t, Alex wouldn’t have given me the most perfect tattoo.
It’s exactly what I needed, from the little foot that I thought I wanted, to the little handprint over my heart that I hadn’t even considered. The manila envelope still holds those precious items: her birth certificate, sheet music from Brahms’ Lullaby and the pink rattle I snatched from the bassinet. I’ve always had these with me, but now that everything, with the exception of the rattle and the only picture I have of Brandon, is permanently on my midriff, just below my boobs, I’m not as worried about losing the documents. I’ll still keep them close though, in the pink box on the top shelf of my closet with the letters I’ve written to Brandy. But nobody can take the art from my body. Brandy and Brandon will be with me always.
Shit! My eyes are tearing up again and everything in front of me is starting to blur. After sobbing inside of Reed’s, you’d think I’d be done by now.
“Coffee?” Alex pulls his gloves on as he steps outside in to the cold.
“Coffee!” I blink and quickly wipe away a few stray tears. I’m drained and really just want a nap, but it’s kind of nice spending time with someone I don’t have to guard myself around. Not so much protecting my feelings and heart and that type of stuff, but not having to watch what I say, or slip about Baxter, or mention I was once pregnant and lived on the streets. Those things are what people judge you by. Alex already knows the ugly. Far more ugly about my past than anyone else, with the exception of people at Baxter, like Mrs. Robak and a handful of therapists.
“There’s a diner a few blocks down,” he says and we head in that direction, keeping our heads down against the cold November wind. My hands are shoved in my coat pocket because I lost my gloves on campus two days ago. At least I have a warm, though not exactly fashionable, scarf around my neck, and I duck my chin inside.
I can’t believe that Alex did my tattoo. He’s lucky I didn’t walk right out when I found what artist had been assigned to me. Or, that’s what I thought then. I’m the lucky one. I don’t think anyone else could have done what he did. They would have given me the foot I asked for and left it at that.
Alex stops and I look up and into the long windows. I like diners, but they usually aren’t this busy, with people sitting at every table and the counter. How good could their hamburgers, fries and milkshakes be? “They must have good food,” I mumble as we step inside. The heat from the bodies, kitchen and furnace engulfs me. I’ll be sweating in my coat if I don’t get it off me soon.
“How long?” Alex asks.
The waitress in her mid-fifties with mousey brown hair streaked with silver gives him a disbelieving look. “It’s Thanksgiving. I’ve got about fifteen people ahead of you.” Then I notice the sign. Thanksgiving Special. Turkey and the fixings $3.99. I glance around again. I’d bet what remains of my savings that ninety percent of the people enjoying their meal are homeless or barely have two nickels to rub together. I so don’t want to take a table, or even a seat at the counter from someone who needs a cheap meal far more than me. And, $3.99 is way cheap for a meal in New York. A young couple, who look like they haven’t slept in days are in a back booth with two small children. Worn and dirty backpacks are on the floor beside them.
All of the plates in the diner are filled with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans and a roll. The works. There are also pumpkin pies lined up on the counter, waiting to be served for dessert. My mouth waters. I’ve practically existed on ramen to save money for the tat, make rent and pay for luxuries like internet. I wouldn’t even be paying for that if I didn’t need it for research and emails with professors.
“We see Santa after this?” the little girl asked with excitement. She couldn’t be older than four or five.
The parents share a look and my heart breaks in that instant from the pain in the mother’s eyes. I’ve seen many families like them. They can barely feed their kids, let alone give them a magical Christmas, and every kid deserves a visit from Santa.
No, I don’t have money to spare, but I did save a lot by risking my tattoo on someone auditioning and not insisting on having a Reed do my tat. Pulling my wallet out of my bag I look at the bills, then take a deep breath and take out fifty dollars, leaving me with $200 from what I’d saved up, then I fish out an envelope and shove the money inside.
“You keep envelopes in your bag?” Alex asks.
“I write a lot of letters.” He doesn’t need to know who those letters are written to, or why.
On the inside flap I write “For Santa shopping”.
When the waitress comes by, I ask her to give it to the family in the back booth.
Alex pulls me back outside.
“I forgot that it’s Thanksgiving.”
Actually, I had to. Today was about my daughter turning six and getting a tattoo. “If you have someplace to be, no big deal. We can catch up later.”
He shoves his hands in his front pockets and blows out a breath. It’s white in the cold air. “What are you doing for dinner?”
I shrug. Maybe I’ll splurge and open a can of tuna.
Turning, I glance back at the window and to the booth where the family is sitting. I want to make sure they get the envelope and that the waitress doesn’t pocket it. It’s not that I don’t trust the waitress specifically. I just don’t trust a lot of people to do the right thing.
The mother is holding it, a hand is over her mouth and then she wipes a tear before giving it to her husband. He opens it and a small smile forms before he covers his wife’s hand with his own.
I did need that money, but they need it a hell of a lot more and for once, I’m glad I acted spontaneously.
“Roommates got stuff planned?”
I blink up at Alex.
“Roommates? Plans?” His blue eyes bore into mine as if saying Earth to Kelsey.
“No, they went home.” Each invited me along but I had the excuse of the job interview tomorrow. They thought it odd that I’d interview on a day when schools are closed, but I explained that Baxter was working with my schedule. Nobody else needs to know that Baxter doesn’t celebrate holidays. Any holiday, and tomorrow is just another Friday for them.
My roommates don’t know about the tat either, and probably never will. They don’t even know all of my past. Just that I’m an orphan and went to an art academy. It’s good enough for them, and thankfully, they don’t pry. Besides, I’d been to their homes and never felt comfortable. Families gathered around the table, being nice to each other because it’s a holiday, trying desperately to make me feel welcome, like one of them. Feigning interest in my school and future plans. It’s like being dropped into a foreign country where you don’t know the language and you’re without a translator. The job interview was my perfect out.
Alex grins and grabs my hand. “Come home with me.”
I pull back. “That’s okay. I’ve got stuff to do.”
“You can’t be alone on Thanksgiving, Kelsey.”
“I don’t exactly want to be with strangers, Alex.”
His grin grows large. “But, they aren’t. Not really.”
I narrow my eyes on him. Was he just trying to get me back to his place? He’s got to know that we may have started repairing a once burned bridge, but I sure as hell am not starting anything or getting involved with anyone at this point in my life.
“Come on.” He pulls me toward the subway. “Great meal, great guys. You won’t be sorry.”
I anchor my feet so he can’t pull me any further. “Alex, we haven’t seen each other in almost five years, and we were never friends.”
His head drops, and he turns around, facing me. “Yeah, I know.”
“Just go on home. I’ll go home, and maybe we’ll get coffee some other time.” I pull on my hand, but he’s not letting go. Normally this would send off alarms in my head and my gut, but it’s not.
His blue eyes study mine. “Come with me Kelsey.”
“Why?” What can this matter to him?
“I fucked up. I should have gotten to know you, and because I was a stupid ass with a chip on my shoulder, I didn’t.”
“It’s no big deal.” Though it was. At least back then, and the reason I hated him. But it’s not so much anymore. Not after today.
“It is to me.” He grabs my other hand so that he’s now holding both, like he doesn’t want me to get away or something. “Come back to my place, enjoy an awesome Thanksgiving meal, and we’ll talk.”
His phone dings and he lets go of one hand to pull it from his jeans pocket. After reading the screen, he grins at me and turns the phone so I can see. “See what awaits.”
There’s a photo of a turkey, or what I think is a turkey, mostly wrapped in foil. Beside it on the counter are bowls and all kinds of pots on the stove in the background. Thirty minutes and counting. Browning, carving then eating, the text read.
Damn. He’s offering turkey and all the fixings. My stomach grumbles. I don’t even have turkey-flavored ramen. Actually, I’m not sure if they even have that flavor, but if they did, I don’t have it. I know exactly what’s in my allotted cupboard back at the apartment. A can of coffee, half a loaf of bread, 3 cans of spaghetti, 2 cans of tuna and two packages of chicken-flavored ramen.
Then again, I did save money by letting Alex do my tat instead of insisting and waiting for one of the Reed Brothers to be available, but that didn’t mean I needed to go out and spend it. Besides, I just handed over fifty to a family in need. “I’ll just go home. Enjoy your meal.”
Alex types something into his phone and then shoves it in his pocket. “Nope. You’re coming with me.” This time he hooks his arm with mine and pulls me to the stairs leading down to the subway.
I try and jerk it away, but he has a tight grip. Not that he’s hurting me or anything. Just being pushy. Or make that pulley since he is practically dragging me along behind him.
“I saw that look in your eye when you saw that turkey. You want it, even if you don’t want to admit it.”
Of course I want it. I’d love to sit down to a real meal for a change, but that doesn’t mean I should. Alex is still practically a stranger. What if he’s all weird and shit like that? He doesn’t strike me as dangerous, though. I’m not getting that vibe that usually warns me when someone’s a creep, but we don’t know each other. Not really.
He stops at the turnstile and gets out his metro card and scans it. “You won’t be sorry.”
I pull my card from my pocket and scan it, before following Alex down another flight of stairs to the platform. “I’m already sorry.”
We get there just as the train pulls in.
We wait for the passengers to exit before getting on. There are no empty seats, and barely enough room to stand. I didn’t think the subway would be this busy on a holiday. “Where do you live?”
“Brooklyn.” Alex answers as he grabs the pole for balance.
I do the same. I’ve lost my balance before, and the last thing I want to do is end up on some stranger’s lap.
“We’re renting a townhouse.”
“How many live there?”
“Six.” He shrugs and I gape at him. I’ve been in a number of brownstones and townhouses that were once gorgeous but were now broken up into apartments. One on top of the other, similar to the four bedroom I share with my roommates. Some were roomy and some, not so much. But six guys in one apartment? “That has to be crowded as hell.”
He frowns and then his blue eyes lighten just before he laughs. “We don’t rent an apartment, we rent the entire townhouse.”
Holy crap. I didn’t know tattooing paid so well. Those places cost a fortune.
He’s shaking his head. “It’s not what you think. It was a family home but got to be too much for the older couple who owns it. They moved to a smaller apartment. He wanted to cut it up for apartments and even started to in the attic. He planned an apartment for each floor like a lot of owners have done. Make it into an income property.”
I hate how so many early twentieth century buildings are cut up like the one I live in. Such beautiful architecture destroyed for the purpose of making as much money as possible.
“The wife is completely against the idea and wants the place to keep its original charm. The rent was already cheap because of the condition of the place, but we talked the couple down because two of my roommates also work construction. In exchange for cheap rent, we’ve fixed the roof, plumbing and electrical, but there’s still a ton of work to do. We got the important stuff done, the rest is mostly cosmetic.”
Sounds like a great deal. If I knew how to operate a power tool, I’d try to find something like that. But, since I can’t even hammer in a nail, I’m stuck in an expensive shoebox close to campus.
“Each month we give him the receipts and an estimate on what a contractor would have charged, and he adjusts the rent. We don’t know what we are paying from one month to the next, but it’s the best deal in town, and he’s happy to have people living there who aren’t just keeping the place up, but making it better. It’s cheaper for him in the long run to have it done this way instead of hiring a firm to gut the place.”
“So, who do you live with? You said they weren’t strangers, but we don’t exactly have the same circle of friends.”
Alex chuckles and shakes his head. “You’ll see.”
I didn’t even think when I asked Kelsey back to the house. The guys will be surprised, but I hope they aren’t pissed. Not that they should be. It’s not like I just grabbed a stranger off the street and brought her home to be fed. Not that they should have a problem if I did.
Okay, maybe a total stranger in our home would be a bad idea.
Kelsey narrows her eyes on me. “I don’t like surprises. And I’ve already had enough today.”
The seeing me and almost bolting from Reed’s before getting her tattoo, or the tat that wasn’t just a foot? I’m not sure I want to know. She loved the tat, but she didn’t love seeing me, at least not at first.
“Trust me. It’s a good one. You’ll fit right in.”
Kelsey blows out a sigh. “Listen, I don’t do family meals well. Is somebody’s family going to be there?”
I seal my lips and make a sign like I’m throwing away the key.
“If I’m uncomfortable, I’m leaving, okay. No making me stay.”
Kelsey has her defenses up, like she’s afraid. I get it. I’m not exactly open to strangers either, but she’ll be happy once she sees who’s there. At least, I assume she will be. “Only long enough to fix you a plate so you can take it home.” Maybe she’ll relax knowing she can walk out the door as soon as she walks in, if that is what she wants, though I doubt it will happen that way.
She gave me a small smile. “Is there going to be pie?”
“Chocolate, pumpkin and cherry.”
Her eyes practically rolled back in her head as she groans. “I can’t remember the last time I had pie.”
I’m surprised that particular dessert didn’t bring all kinds of unpleasant memories. She was delivering a piece of pie to Brandon when he was killed.
The smile slips. “I couldn’t eat pie for two years after Brandon died.”
Could she fucking read my mind?
“Then I realized, if I hadn’t been taking him a piece, I wouldn’t have been able to say goodbye and tell him that I loved him. I would have just gone home and waited for him to get off work.” Her dark eyes meet mine. “So, pie is good.”
“And, these will be delicious.”
The train slows and I glance out to see where we are. I haven’t been paying close attention to the stops, but we’re getting close.
Close? Hell, this is my stop. If I hadn’t decided to look this time, we would have gone right past and that would have been a pain in the ass to get off at the next stop, and then go around and grab the train going in the opposite direction.
“Here we are.”
She takes a deep breath and steps out onto the platform. “Are you sure they won’t mind?”“I promise,” grabbing her hand, I head for the stairs to exit the subway.