Scroll down for episodes two through five.
Laura Fleming's story began last December. It was revealed an episode a day throughout the month. Response to the story was so great, and everyone wanted to know how it ended, so it became a book.
About a month ago, Laura's story, The House-Sitter's Christmas, was published. But that wasn't good enough. People were complaining that it was too short. They wanted to know more. What happened to Laura after Christmas?
So, dear reader, I will be telling the next "episode" of Laura's life here, as The House-Sitter's Country Christmas, a sequel, an episode a day for the month of December, ending before Christmas. This time, I promise, I won't wait a year to bring out the book and reveal the ending of the story.
Until then, please tune in every day for a new episode of Laura Fleming's life. Welcome also, C.W. Craig Banley, George, and Jasper...thank you so much for your keen interest. Without you, this story would not exist.
P.S. Please note that these episodes are not yet edited, but the book will be. Thank you for stopping by.
Scroll down for episode two...
THE HOUSE-SITTER’S COUNTRY CHRISTMAS
His words rang in her ears, “Let’s go to your house over the holidays.” Laura shuddered at the memory. How could she have C.W. “Craig” Banley to her humble home in Pine Grove? Her small three-bedroom abode would never provide the comfort and luxury of Craig’s grand townhouse in New York City.
They had settled into a routine of her had been visiting him two weekends a month for the past year. Gradually, he had made a place for her in his palace. At first, it was simply one drawer in the antique chest in his bedroom. Then it was one drawer and a few hangers. Now, he’d moved his off-season clothing into a cedar closet in the attic and given her half the space, plus two drawers in the chest.
When he got annoyed or angry, he’d trudge up the stairs, mumbling how moving his things all over the place wasn’t worth it. Invariably, after a short cooling off period, he’d return in a conciliatory mood.
The first time he lost his temper with her, he’d shut himself in his study. She’d immediately climbed the stairs and packed her bag, assuming their relationship had come to an end.
When he’d emerged to see her at the front hall closet, donning her coat, her suitcase at her side, he was horrified. Begging her forgiveness, he explained that he had a bad temper, inherited from a host of ancestors, and could she forgive him?
“You mean it’s not over between us?”
“Oh my God, no. Not on my part. No, no, no, and no. Please don’t leave, Laura.”
Relief had soared through her veins as tears had clouded her eyes. She’d clung to him closing her eyes, believing his words that a rich and powerful man, like him, could adore an ordinary woman like her.
His cross words forgotten, he’d led her by the hand, back to the bedroom. She had managed to unpack before his eased her down on the bed and made love to her. Thinking back now, she had to chuckle. It was true what they said about make-up sex.
Laura hadn’t lived with a man since she’d been married, and that hadn’t worked out. Craig could be moody at times. Mostly he was quiet, sweet, and protective. He’d chastised her more than once for opening the front door, without checking to see who had come knocking.
Laura toted her laptop with her on the bus to the City so she could continue teaching her writing classes from his house, using the guestroom as her office. Because Laura liked to cook, Craig had given Maeve the weekends off. During the week, she’d spend time at home, poring over cookbooks, searching for new recipes to seduce Craig’s taste buds. She’d command his kitchen, producing new concoctions to perfection.
Tossing her head, she cleared her mind of the memories of the townhouse and stared glumly at her own place. What she had considered shabby chic, now simply appeared shabby. The living room desperately needed a new coat of paint. Her quilted bedspread had faded in the sunlight. Furnished with prized garage-sale finds, her house couldn’t compete with Craig’s, brimming with fine antiques in burnished mahogany, and emerald and ruby silks.
Plopping down on her comfy, discount-store, sectional sofa, she rested her chin in her hands. How could she let Craig come to her house for Christmas? They’d miss all the beautiful and sentimental holiday celebrations in the City. What would they have in Pine Grove, a nighttime hayride? She frowned.
She’d been saving her inheritance for retirement, but it looked like she’d have to dip into it now, if she wanted her home to be presentable for his majesty, C. W. Banley. She picked up the phone and called her friend, Jess Lennox.
“Hey, Jess. What’s Will doing?”
“Working, I guess.”
“Can he squeeze me in? I’ve got a rush job.”
“What’s the job?”
“Turn my shack into a palace.”
Jess laughed. “I’ll tell him.”
Laura hung up the phone. It was the first day of December. She still had a couple of weeks to get the place in shape. She wandered through the small dining room to the back of the house. The picture window, divided into many small panes of glass, looked out over her backyard. She owned an acre that abutted state forest land in the back. She’d spent many an hour on the small deck or standing where she was now, watching the wildlife. Bears had lumbered by. Deer silently stole through, searching for food. A wily fox would sneak across the lawn, tracking a wary squirrel and, of course, the wild turkeys –her biggest chuckle of them all.
How would Craig feel about the animals? They’d have to bring Jasper with them, but what would happen if he got outside? Her brow creased at the thought of him becoming lunch for a coyote. Her phone rang. It was Will Lennox.
“You wanna fix that place up, Laura?”
“Yep. How fast and how much?”
“Depends. I’ll be over tonight to take a look.”
He hung up. She sighed and headed for the kitchen. Will loved her butter cookies. She’d whip up a batch in the hopes of softening him up. She needed expert work and quickly.
Before gathering the ingredients, she gazed at the room. It would never do. A fraction of the size of Craig’s and so poorly equipped. She’d made do with second-hand gadgets, china, and utensils for so long, she’d never noticed how ramshackle everything had become.
She eased down on a chair at the table. Perhaps it was time Mr. Banley got to see the real Laura Fleming. Was she like a poor, downtrodden dog or cat he’d rescued? Maybe. Would he be horrified and walk away? Would this be their last time together?
Craig stood at the front window, coffee cup in hand. George sat on the sofa behind him.
“We’re going to Pine Grove for Christmas?” George asked.
“That’s right. You’ve canceled our appointments in Italy and France?”
“I have. We’re rescheduled for January.”
“Why Pine Grove?”
“It’s where Laura lives.”
“Oh, of course. I forgot. You’re staying at her house?”
“And you are, too. I’m looking forward to it.”
“You in the country? Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure. Any place Laura loves must be special.”
“You mean, because you love her, you’ll love whatever she loves?”
“Something like that.”
George snorted. Craig faced his friend and right-hand man.
“You don’t agree?”
“You and the country? It’s laughable.”
Craig bristled. “I used to live in the country. When I was a boy. With Uncle C.W.”
“How many years ago was that?”
“Plenty,” Craig said turning toward the street. People bustled down 81st toward the subway.
“I don’t mean to insult you, Craig, but you won’t have all the comforts of home there.”
“But I’ll have Laura there.”
“That you will.”
“And I’ll be patient. I’ll understand. I’m not stupid. I know it’s different. I know she can’t afford a place like this. It’s okay. We’ll be roughing it for a few days. Do us both good.”
“I’m not the problem. I’ve been ‘roughing it’ all my life. I’m sure the house is lovely. She has exquisite taste.”
“Of course, she does. She picked me, didn’t she?”
George laughed. “No one ever accused you of having low self-esteem.”
“Why should I? Look what I’ve accomplished. Besides, I’m not a bad-looking fellow, reasonable sense of humor, and I’m kind to children and animals.”
George laughed. “Indeed. You certainly are all those things. And more, Craig.”
“And now I’m the luckiest man in the world, because I have the best woman there is.”
“I’ll agree there.”
Craig turned his gaze to George and wrinkled his brow. “What about you, George?”
“What about me?”
“You don’t have a woman.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Well? Do you?”
George trained his gaze on the floor before meeting Craig’s again. “No.”
“Okay then. Maybe there’s a female in the country who would suit you. I’ll ask Laura.”
George raised his palms. “Don’t do that! Really. I’m fine. I had the best, she died, I have my children and I’m content.”
“Content, perhaps, but unfulfilled.”
“Unfulfilled? With my work with you? Hardly. And we traipse all over the world, too.”
“I was trying to be polite, George,” Craig said. “I know your dislike for bad language.”
“Exactly what did you mean by unfulfilled?”
“I meant horny, George. Horny.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I guess I can’t argue with you there.”
“Good. On my wish list for our country Christmas is getting you laid.”
“Now wait a minute, Craig. Hold your horses.”
“All I want for you is a happy holiday, George. And, believe me, some good sex in your stocking is just the gift to make you smile,” Craig said, chuckling.
“You’re having fun at my expense, aren’t you?”
“Have to seize the opportunity. It doesn’t happen every day.”
George grinned. “True.”
“If Laura found some nice older lady for you, would that be bad?”
“Not too much older.”
His assistant chuckled. “I’ll pick my own women. Thank you, but I don’t need any help with that.”
“Really? You’re doing a lousy job.”
“How can you say that?”
Craig placed his hand on George’s forearm. “Because you’re alone. I want better for you.”
“I thank you. But I’m okay. I’m not opposed to make a new, uh, friend. But I’m not unhappy the way I am.”
“Yeah, I thought the same thing. Now look at me. I smile all the time.”
“You never thought the same thing. You were miserable without a woman. And not just a one-night stand. Though Lord knows you’ve had plenty of those.”
Craig laughed. “I sure have, haven’t I?”
“It’s nothing to be proud of. There are words for that kind of man.”
“Lucky?” Craig laughed.
“Stop baiting me. We have work to do,” George said, rising.
“I have to buy country clothes. Hmm. Where do I go for that?”
“Not in New York City, surely. How about the L.L. Bean catalog?
“Perfect! George, you’re a wonder.”
“I’ll pull it up online. Best not to waste time. With it being the holidays, who knows how long it will take to get here?”
The two men refilled their mugs from the fresh pot Maeve made and adjourned to the study. George opened the laptop and brought up the catalog online. Craig stared out the window for a moment. George had hit on a sore point. Could he, Craig, the comfort king, put up with the realities of the country? He’d soon find out.
Comments are welcome! Click here for Episodes 6-10
In the meantime, if you want to read the first book, "The House-Sitter's Christmas", a sweet fairy tale holiday romance, here's how to get it. It's even in large print (great gift for those with visual issues) and on audio with dual narrators!
At five, Laura opened the door to let Will Lennox in. He wiped his shoes on the mat, then entered.
“Something smells good.”
“Your favorites. Butter cookies.”
“Really? You made those just for me?”
She nodded. He sidled up to her.
“You know I’d rather have a date with you then all the cookies in the world.”
She backed up. “We’ve been over that, Will. I’m too old for you and now I have a boyfriend.”
“Who? That rich guy you house-sit for?”
“C. W. Banley. That’s right.”
“He’s pretty fancy for a country girl like you.”
“Maybe. Anyway, he’s coming to visit and I need to get this place fixed up.”
“Not fancy enough for Mr. Moneybags?”
“It’s not that,” she said, fidgeting and lowering her glance. “It’s just that there are some thing that need fixin’. Have for a long time. Now I’ve got a little money, I thought I’d get it done.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Why don’t you have a cookie and we’ll talk about it,” Laura said, guiding him into the kitchen.
She pulled out paper and pen while Will started on the baked goods.
“Painting the living room. Maybe the bedroom, too? Fixing the stair on the back steps. The dripping faucet in the bathroom. Hmm…” she said, putting the pen in her mouth.
“That shutter on the front left is hanging a little. Looks like the dining room could use a new coat of paint, too.”
“You’re right.” She poured a glass of milk. “Here you go. How much is this all going to cost, Will?”
“Now if we were datin’, I could cut you a deal. But since we’re not, it’s gonna be the regular price.”
Laura agreed to pay his asking price and they settled on a start day. Afterward she let out a breath. At least it would be starting soon. Maybe these cosmetic fixes would be enough to make the place look much better.
She chewed her lip and headed for the living room. Might as well get the place straightened up. She had her knitting on the sofa, and three books piled on an end table. As she found new, out-of-sight places for her things, she shook her head. Nothing would make this place within spitting distance of the elegant abode of Mr. C.W. Banley.
Will had put it well.
“Don’t know what you need to fancy this place up for. If Mr. High-and-Mighty doesn’t like it, he and go suck an egg. If he don’t like your place, then he don’t like you, Laura.”
She wondered about that. She clenched her jaw. Would Craig be obnoxious about her lower station in life? How many women could he find who weren’t less well off than he? Not many, she imagined. She plunked down in a chair by the stone fireplace. Her shoulders sagged.
No amount of paint would cover up or wash away the differences between her and Craig Banley. He was up there and she was down here. But he’d never rubbed her nose in it. In fact, he’d been most generous. A small smiled played at her lips. People of Pine Grove might be like Will Lennox, with a chip on their shoulders.
Her father always said that if you feel second class, then you are second class. But if your attitude says high class, then you are –and not in a snobby way. She figured it was his way of saying she should respect herself, the kind of person she is and what she’s doing with her life. Of course, Craig would respect that and her, if she respected herself.
She grinned, grateful for her father’s wisdom. She rose up and gathered her belongings, transferring them to an out of the way place. Just getting rid of the clutter would make the house closer to Mr. Banley’s, so she’d start there.New color on the walls, fixed back step be damned. If C.W. Banley doesn't love her for who she is, then he wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel. Making up her mind about it, eased her heart a bit. Maybe if she’d show him the poise and elegance of a country girl, he’d stay in love with her ‘till the end. Maybe
Back in Manhattan, George hustled to the front door to answer the insistent ringing of the bell.
“I’m coming, I’m coming. Patience!” He called out.
An electronic gadget was thrust into his face after he opened the door.
“Sign here, buddy,” the delivery man said.
George eyed the two large boxes and shook his head. He penned his name, thanked the man and lugged them inside.
He opened the study door. “Your clothing is here.”
Craig looked up from the computer, where he was studying an Excel spreadsheet. “Oh, good. Let’s see if the stuff fits.”
The two men hauled the packages up to the bedroom.
George pulled out shirt after shirt. “How much did you buy?”
“We’re going to be there for ten days, George. Man has to look his best for his woman.”
“Yes, only ten days.”
“I’ll need a fresh shirt every day.”
“Never know what mess I might get into.”
“I doubt she’ll have room for all this. I’m sure she has a modest house.”
“You’re such a killjoy, George. Did I ever tell you that?”
George made a face. “With this wardrobe, she’ll think you’re moving in for good.”
Craig snorted. “Very funny.”
“We can leave some in the trunk of the car, I suppose,” George said, rubbing his chin.
“Good idea. We’ll pack two suitcases, five days’ worth each. Then switch.”
George shook his head slowly. “You pack like a girl.”
“Only women take so many things with them.”
“I resent that. I don’t want to look like a slob in front of Laura. What if I spill something? How can I wear that again the next day.”
“You haven’t heard of washing machines?”
“We’re not taking Maeve.”
“You might consider learning to do your own laundry.”
“Why? I did it for years and now I don’t have to.”
“Spoiled child,” George muttered as he pulled down two large valises from the closet shelf.
The men packed up the new clothing in two suitcases.
“I’m going shopping this afternoon, George. You can take the afternoon off.”
“What about the Excelsior contract?”
“I’ll go over it tonight, after dinner. Take some time. Take off tomorrow morning, too,” Craig said, patting the older man’s shoulder.
“Buying a gift for your uncle?”
“Old C.W.? He doesn’t need anything. I’m going to send him a case of crème de cassis and white wine. My buddy, Pierre, in Dijon is taking care of it.”
“I understand he wasn’t too thrilled with the mustard sampler you sent from Dijon last year.”
“Ungrateful man! It’s the finest mustard in the world.”
“I’m sure this year’s gift will be more to his liking.”
“He’ll have the finest Kir in the world, to seduce his young woman,” Craig said, with a short laugh.
“I’ve got a bottle of each for my lady, too.”
“Good thinking.” George smiled.
Craig shrugged on his overcoat and headed for the street. Christmas shopping was on his mind. He needed something wonderful for Laura. That would be easy. A small jewelry shop on Broadway had many elegant pieces in the window. But what should he get for George? Every year he bought his right-hand man something fabulous. This year, he was out of ideas.
The best gift would be a woman of his own. But how could Craig do that? It’s not like there was a girlfriend store and you simply went in and placed your order for a blonde, brunette or redhead. He’d have to consult with Laura.
He dialed as he crossed Columbus Avenue.“Laura? Hello, darling I have a special request. And I need your help.”
Laura wracked her brain, trying to come up with a woman to introduce to George. Jess Lennox was too busy. Giselle Davenport was in town, but maybe only for the holidays. She hopped in her car and headed for the store. I
After lugging three bags of heavy groceries into the house, Laura was pooped. She put the tea kettle on the stove and pressed her Christmas playlist on her phone. As she unpacked and put away the food, she sang along. Until there was a knock on the door. It was Will.
He sniffed the air. “No cookies today?”
He leaned his ladder against the kitchen archway and laid a drop cloth over one rung. “The living room’s in bad shape. I’m scraping and putting on a base coat today. Won’t get to painting for a while. Okay?”
“He’s coming next Friday. It has to be done by then.”
“I want it that lovely lemon meringue yellow with white trim on the molding.”
Laura chewed her lip while she consulted her list.
“Craig wants me to find a date for his, his friend. George.”
“How about Janie Brown. She’s become a pain in my butt.”
“What?” Laura looked up.
“Yeah. She keeps bothering me to marry her. No way! That chick is crazy. I can’t get rid of her.”
“It’s your own fault. Didn’t you lead her on?”
“We dated for a couple of months. I told her, with the way things are, there’s no way I’m leaving Jess. She needs me. I ain’t deserting her now.”
Laura smiled. Will had been a loyal brother, helping to support his sister since he was fourteen. They’d had a rough life.
“But she kept harping on it. She wanted me to build her a house and marry her and stuff. She’s crazy,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d better get going. Gotta have this place in shape for Mr. Moneybags.”
“Please don’t call him that.”
Will shot her a hostile look and traipsed off to the living room, bucket in hand and drop cloth under his arm. Halfway there, he stopped and looked back.
“My cousin is coming to visit for a few days.”
“You don’t know her. Her husband got killed in a tractor accident.”
“How old is she?”
“About forty, I think. Dunno.”
Will shook his head. “He couldn’t.”
“She might be perfect.”
“How old is this dude?”
“I don’t know exactly. Maybe fifty?”
Will snorted. “A little old for Ginger, don’t you think?”
“Who knows, these days?”
The handyman shrugged. “I’ll ask Jess.”
“Thanks, Will. If she thinks it’s okay, Maybe Ginger would like to come for dinner?”
“I’ll check with Jess.”
Laura checked ‘find a girl for George’ off her list. She poured a cup of tea and sat by the window. The bird feeders were empty. Putting down her cup, she lifted a big bag of birdseed and trudged out back, through the snow. She still had chickadees and titmice looking to her to soften their winter. As she added seed to each of the three feeders, she wondered about the Christmas events in town. Would Craig want to go to such rinky-dink doings?
There was the hayride at midnight on Christmas Eve. She doubted Craig would want to do that. There was cider and cookies and caroling at Homer’s. The Pine Grove Presbyterian Church had a combination concert and singalong.
This year, Giselle was opening Santa’s Thrift Shop and having a little reception there. The price of admission was a new toy, gift-wrapped. Laura always went to that. Crap, she’d have to add a toy to her shopping list. She hadn’t bought her gifts for C.W. yet. This year, she’d made him a sweater. Surely he’d need it at her house. The small Victorian was drafty as Hell. She’d grown used to it, but she doubted her comfort-loving man would agree. She needed to get others presents, too.
When the feeders were full, she returned to the kitchen, reheated her tea and sank down on a chair to watch the birds attack the fresh food. She opened a small notebook and created a timeline for her chores. When she glanced up, she spied two chickadees perched on a feeder, pecking away. She put down her pen and sat back, taking another sip of the Earl Grey brew.
She’d take a minute to enjoy one of the pleasures of the country –observing wildlife in it’s natural habitat, unbothered by humans. She grinned, wondering which critter would be by to scoop up the seed the bird was tossing on the ground.
Craig put on his sunglasses and smiled. The brisk wind made him turn up his collar, but his mission to buy gifts for the woman he loved warmed him from the inside out. Instead of going to the fancy jewelers on Fifth Avenue, Craig preferred to give his business to Harry, the local jeweler on Broadway.
Strolling up the avenue, Craig enjoyed stopping at the festive, artistic windows. Instead of avoiding Christmas, as he always had in the past, escaping on a business trip to Europe, this year, he’d be enjoying Christmas in the States, buying splendid gifts for the woman he adored.
Last weekend she had arrived with some new ornaments for their tree. Ah, how he loved those words, ‘their tree’! She’d taken up the task of decorating his house, with him as the helper. She had ordered him about, bossing him, correcting his mistakes as if he were a sixteen-year-old intern. He’d chuckled at the time at how precise she was about every little detail.
“No, the reindeer have to face this way, it’s north and they live on the North Pole. They’re returning after leaving you lovely gifts,” she had said. He’d kissed her vexed little face, and made the changes she requested.
Although he looked forward to the surprises she had in store for him, he didn’t need any presents this year. He had the greatest gift of all, her love. His mood elevated with every step that brought him closer to Harry’s.
“Mr. Banley! What a pleasure to see you,” Harry said. They shook hands. “I haven’t seen you since you were wooing that Danish girl, what was her name, again?”
“It doesn’t matter, Harry. This time it’s the real thing.”
The man’s eyebrows rose. “The real thing? Love? Oh, Mr. Banley, I’m so happy for you. Sadie and I have been happily married for forty years. I wish you the same.”
Craig smiled. He knew that half of Harry’s delight was that he looked ahead to many holidays when C.W. would be buying expensive jewelry from Harry for the woman he hoped would be his wife. Yes, a dash of personal and a whole lot of business for Harry. Craig was no fool.
“What do you have today, Harry, that would add to the beauty of a young woman with chestnut hair and blue eyes?”
“Necklace, bracelets or rings, Mr. Banley?”
“We’re not quite ready for rings yet, Harry. Let’s look at the bracelets.”
“I have a lovely tennis bracelet, Mr. Banley. Let me get it.”
While the jeweler went into his back room, Craig stood up and perused the displays. Dazzling diamonds winked at him. Rich emeralds, paired with diamonds in necklaces called to him. Torn between a sapphire and diamond necklace and an emerald and diamond necklace, Craig actually considered buying both. She’ll have a birthday –Valentine’s day is only two months away.
Then he saw it. The most exquisite, emerald cut diamond solitaire he’d ever seen. The ring, banked on both sides by smaller round-cut diamonds, took his breath away. Surely this was the ring for a princess. Or a queen--with a price tag to match. But he wasn’t in the market for an engagement ring, was he?
“Here you go, Mr. Banley,” Harry said, laying out several diamond tennis bracelets.
Craig turned his attention to the black velvet showcasing the glistening jewelry. He humpfed. They looked mighty paltry.
“That won’t do. Too small. Too insignificant. Now these necklaces over here,” Craig said, heading to the display case.
Harry got up to retrieve the emerald one and its sapphire counterpart. But Craig’s attention was drawn to the ring. He couldn’t pull his eyes away from it’s breath-taking beauty.
Laura added more water to the kettle and turned to a fresh page in her notebook. Time to plan meals. Hmm, a ten-day visit would require serious cooking, though he’d probably want to take her out to eat a few times.
Activity out the window caught her eye. A junco and a sparrow had joined the chickadee at the feeder. Lowering her gaze, she spied some small hoof-prints in the light layer of snow. Deer?
Probably. They’d surely eat the seed spilled from the feeders. Watching her wild friends calmed Laura. She reminded herself that Craig was the man she loved. He wouldn’t sit in judgment on her, right? She’d stocked the fridge and if they ran out of food, she’d simply buy more.
With a sigh, she returned to her task. Her cell rang. It was Jess Lennox.
“You have a guy for my cousin, Ginger?”
“Who is it?”
Laura went into a description of George. “He’s a very decent guy. So nice to me, and helpful. And he puts up with Craig’s idiosyncrasies. Which is saying a lot.”
“Is he handsome?”
“Not like Craig, but he’s a nice-looking man.”
“Okay then. Ginger said she wouldn’t get fixed up, though.”
“Why don’t you all join us for dinner? That way, she’ll never know.”
“Now, that’s a plan. When?”
The two women chatted until they had worked out the details. They’d be coming over the second night after Craig and George arrived. Didn’t make much sense to wait. Laura figured if George and Ginger liked each other, they’d have some time to get to know each other better. She grinned. Why were people in love always trying to fix up other people? Was love like a disease and once you caught it, you wanted to spread it around? She chuckled.
Laura made herself a sandwich for dinner, adding extra lettuce as a vegetable. As she chewed, she pondered where she could get a decent gift for C.W. The stores in her town wouldn’t have anything to interest him. She’d have to branch out.
She opened the newspaper, as she often did when eating alone, and an ad caught her attention. The headline read “Christmas Village. Specialty Shops.” Vaguely, the memory came back to her. Her father had taken her there to find special gifts for her mother during the holidays.
Christmas Village was a small section, only about two blocks long, right outside of Oak Bend, a town larger than Pine Grove. Of course, almost all towns were larger than Pine Grove. Christmas Village shops were only open on holidays. The tiny stores held special merchandise relating to each celebration. Originally open only at Christmas time, success nudged the owners to cash in on other special days, like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Each shop keeper stocked unique merchandise. The ad reminded her of the quaint atmosphere of the tiny Village. Surely that would be the place to find the right gift for Craig. She breathed easy. Another problem on the way to being solved. Climbing the stairs to her bedroom, she didn’t bother to bring a book. She’d be too excited to read. Craig was coming to her humble home –would it be a dream come true, or a nightmare getting played out?
The next morning, she hopped in the car, heading for Christmas Village. She arrived early, but still had to park several blocks away. Bundled up in scarfs and hats to protect against the cold wind, people moved from store to store, searching for that perfect gift for a friend or loved one. A few stores claimed to carry “vintage” items. After one look, Laura decided those places carried junk –garage sale stuff at much higher prices. She turned up her nose and continued on. One did not buy a garage sale item for a wealthy man.
The last shop was a second-hand bookstore. Laura didn’t hold out much hope that anything second-hand would do for C.W. Banley, but she entered anyway.
“Can I help you, miss?” The gray-haired shopkeeper asked.
“I don’t think so. I’m looking for a special gift for a well-to-do gentleman.”
“Money isn’t everything.”
“Of course not. I was wondering if there might be a book about the history of Sullivan County? Craig grew up here, and I was just wondering…”
“What’s his last name?” The man interrupted.
“Banley. He was raised by his uncle, C.W. Banley.”
“Hmm. Banley, huh? Seems as if I’ve seen his name mentioned a time or two. Let’s take a look,” he said, leading her to the back of the store. There was an entire section on Sullivan County. The books were varied, some hardback, some paper. There were a few that looked like journals, too. They were kind of beat up.
“Might take me a while to go through these.”
The bell over his door tinkled.
“Customers. Look, I don’t have time to search now, but after closing, I’d be happy to take a look-see. I bet Banleys’ mentioned somewhere. Give me your number. I’ll call if I find something.”
Laura pulled out a card and jotted her cell down. “I’m hoping to have it by Christmas, Mr. uh, ah, what’s your name?”
“Cal Nearing, Miss,” he said, glancing down at the card, “Fleming.”
“Laura, please,” she said extending her hand. He shook it and tucked the card in his shirt pocket.
Craig swung the tiny shopping bag in one hand as he continued down Broadway. Laura was easy to buy for, but George, well, he was another matter. He drew his brows together, considering the possibilities: a book, a leather briefcase, a couple of bottles of fine wine, a case of condoms? The last one made him laugh. That might only serve to magnify George’s woman-less status. If I could find and gift-wrap an attractive woman, that would be the best present for George. Maybe he should enroll George and pay for a year’s subscription to a dating site for his righthand man.
Jokes aside, he still had no gift. He’d given him a leather briefcase the year before. George took excellent care of all his possessions, so it was as if new. He’d done the wine thing for several occasions and books, well, he had no idea what George liked to read. Maybe a couple of porno films would be welcome. Craig shook his head, chuckling to himself. George would be appalled and embarrassed beyond belief.
His thoughts turned to himself. Why this sudden preoccupation with sex? Could it be that he was missing his woman? He grinned –of course he was, but it wouldn’t be much longer before she’d be in his arms again.
He wandered into Barnes & Noble. After poking around for half an hour, he settled for the right book for George, bought it, got it gift-wrapped and left the store. Pleased he avoided wrapping the gift himself, Craig headed home.
As the sun settled in the West, the temperature dropped. He wound the wool scarf Laura had knitted him tighter around his neck. Ducking down a side street to look at the decorations, he became aware of the couples walking before him. Some held hands, some women folded theirs over the crook in the man’s arm. Everyone seemed to be coupled up.
The wind blew through his coat, chilling him. Damn stupid idea to wear this thin jacket! As he chided himself, and vowed to pay more attention to the weather, his heart yearned to be one of the couples, strolling along the city streets, bright with colored lights in windows and wreaths on doors. For the first time, his heart grew lighter. His turn would come –he would be one of those men with a beautiful woman on his arm, a man who used “we” instead of “I”, and had someone to care for besides himself, and his buddy, George.
How long would it be before that was a reality? It would depend on the devotion of one lovely house-sitter, a country girl with grace, charm, and beauty. He strode home faster, eager to cross the day off his calendar and be one day closer to seeing his beloved.
The next morning, Laura let Will in and went about straightening and cleaning. In the afternoon, she planned to make two casseroles and freeze them. Her cell rang. It was a Cal Nearing. His name had slipped her memory for a moment. Ah, yes –the man from the bookstore in Christmas Village.
“Howdy-do, Miss Fleming. I spent some time last night going over those books and I think I found something that would interest you. Can you stop by today?”
Laura chewed a nail. “Hmm. Well, maybe. About eleven?”
“Perfect. See you then.”
He hung up. Looks like the cooking would have to happen this morning and the cleaning and straightening this afternoon. She went outside to where Will was fixing the back step.
“Will. I’m going to put two casseroles in the oven. Then I have to go out. Will you make sure they don’t burn? Can I call you and ask you to turn off the stove?”
“Sure, sweetheart. Anything for you,” he said, a lustful grin on his face.
Laura slapped his shoulder, but smiled back and headed for the door. The drive was pleasant. The local radio station played Christmas music and ran a commercial for Christmas Village. She sang along to the old, familiar tunes, her spirits lifted, her soul smiling. Luckily there was a car pulling out in front of the bookstore. Laura parked there and went inside.
“Howdy-do, Miss Fleming.”
“Hi. What do you have for me.”
“No beating around the bush.”
“I have two casseroles in the oven.”
“Oh, my. Well, then I’d better get a move on.” He turned toward a small pile of books. “I found Banley in several of these. Hmm, let’s see. Oh, yes. Here’s one where a Chester Banley jumped in the Delaware and saved a young boy from drowning. Mayor gave him the key to the city! Yes, let’s see. Here he’s mentioned, too. Did he also go under the name C.W. Banley, too?”
“Then he’s in a magazine article. It’s republished in this one, here.” Cal Nearing pulled out a thin book called “Sullivan County Crier, 1960 – 2010.” She thumbed through, glancing at the articles. Mr. Nearing had placed a Post-It on the page. She could hardly tear her eyes away from the folksy news articles and the editorials addressing the issues of those days.
“How much are these?”
He took a long look at her. “You related to Banley?”
She shook her head. “But one of his relatives is a close friend.”
“Hmm. Okay. That works. I’ll give you the family price. Five bucks each.”
She nodded and fished her wallet from her purse. What a bargain for such a special gift for Craig. She could hardly wait to wrap the three books. When she got home, she asked Will if he wanted tea and put the kettle on.
Trying not to get distracted, but failing, she simply had to dive into these musty old books. She prepared a pot of Earl Grey, told Will, then settled onto the sofa and opened the first of her new finds. There was the newspaper account of C.W. jumping into the Delaware after Johnny Hawley. When she turned the page, there was a magazine article about the rescue as well. Finally, she read a first- person account of C.W.’s bravery.
Noise from Will puttering around in the kitchen interrupted her concentration.
“Can I get you anything, Will?”
She went back to the book. The warmth of the tea relaxed her, and before long, Laura Fleming was asleep and dreaming of heroic feats by her beloved Craig Banley.
Entering the office, Craig smelled the tempting aroma of brewing coffee. Maeve had been there, straightening up and putting up a fresh pot. He was late, something he’d never tolerated in himself or others. But of late, he had relaxed his rigid code of behavior. Seemed like love had turned his brain to mush. George had been most amused.
“Well, George. What’s new on our plate for today?”
George, frowning, approached his boss. “I’m afraid the news isn’t good.”
“Really?” Craig arched an eyebrow.
“Seems as if M. Pierre LaRoche refuses to reschedule our annual meeting. He said if we don’t see him on December twenty-third, then he’ll take his business to Carter Investments.
“That two-timing, selfish bastard! Let him Let him take his investments to that fraud, Carter. See how much money he’ll lose with that idiot churning his holdings. He’s an idiot.”
“That may well be. But he’s worth forty million, Craig.”
“Laura comes first. For Christ’s sake, aren’t I allowed to have a life?”
“Do you want to speak to Pierre directly?”
“I suppose I have to. Grovel, beg and plead with him to give me another week or two. Damn this business. Give me the phone.”
“Yes, sir,” George said, striding into the office for the cell. He dialed, then handed it to Craig.
“Bon jour, Pierre. Ҫa va?”
He chatted with his client amiably in French for a few minutes. Then he switched to English.
“Listen Pierre, I have a favor to ask.”
“If it’s about rescheduling the meeting, I simply cannot.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. You see I’m traveling to the country to celebrate the holiday with a young woman. A woman I hope to make my wife. And this trip is most important.”
“A woman? Craig Banley has a steady woman?”
Craig felt himself blush. “Well, yes. She’s like none other, and I fell. Just like any man would. You’d approve, Pierre. She’s both beautiful and smart.”
“Well, well, well. I thought you were the perennial bee, always flitting from flower to flower.”
Pierre laughed. “Ah. It happens to every man eventually, eh? L’amour.”
“Sure took long enough for me. So, you see my predicament? I promised her to be there for Christmas. If I break my promise, I might lose her.”
“And if you reschedule your meeting in Paris, you might lose me. Quite a dilemma, non?”
“If anyone would understand the affairs of the heart, I’d expect it to be you, Pierre.”
“Ah, yes. Love has come my way, several times, in fact. Many more than you, I suspect.”
Craig’s temper ignited. He took a deep breath and made a face at George, who simply shrugged in response.
“You have traveled that road more than I.”
“Yes. I am going to grant your wish. After all, my millions will never keep you warm on a winter’s night. But a good woman. Ah, that is something else.”
“So, you’ll change the meeting?”
“Just this once. Yes. And please, give her a kiss for me. Joyeux Noël, mon ami. Bonne chance. And I expect an invitation to the wedding.”
“Merci, mon ami. Merci beaucoup. Of course, you’ll be invited, if there is a wedding.”
Craig hung up the phone and let out a breath.
“Well?” George’s eyebrows rose.
Craig grinned. “Horny old bastard. All I had to do was mention love and he caved. I knew he would. Pierre pretends to be hard-hearted, but he’s just mush when it comes to women.”
“Yep. Guess I’ve earned my salary for today.”
“I’d say so.”
“There’s much to do before we leave for Pine Grove, George. Where’s the list?”
“On your desk.”
Craig filled a mug with coffee, dressed it the way he liked, then went into his office and closed the door. He wanted to take in Laura’s surroundings with a free mind. He had a decision to make and needed to be clear-headed.
Comments are welcome! Click here for Episodes 6-10
In the meantime, if you want to read the first book, "The House-Sitter's Christmas", a sweet fairy tale holiday romance, here's how to get it. It's even in large print (great gift for those with visual issues) and on audio with dual narrators!