Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Its Beginning to look a lot like Christmas blog bash - It Must Be Christmas Anthology #Giveaway

Welcome to my holiday blog bash featuring all St. Martin's Press releases
Today's offering is It Must Be Christmas Anthology by Jennifer Crusie, Donna Alward & Mandy Baxter and St. Martin's Press is sponsoring a giveaway of one copy details below.
Enjoy the showcase then enter to win a copy!

Be sure and check back by for more holiday novels and giveaways too!




Overview:
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, when love is in the cold and frosty air—and desire reaches the boiling point. . .

Hot Toy 
From New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Crusie comes a hilarious, sexy story about a determined shopper who grabs the last action figure off the shelf, only to find herself plunged into the arms of a sexy secret agent. Mayhem under the mistletoe ensues. Business as usual this Christmas season…right?

Christmas with the Billionaire Rancher 
Nate wants to stay away from all the women who want his money in Mandy Baxter’s story set deep in the heart of Texas. But when gorgeous do-gooder Chloe Benson comes knocking at his door—in search of funds for her charity—Nate can’t ignore the passion he feels for her. Maybe love is priceless after all?

Christmas at Seashell Cottage 
’Tis the season in Jewell Cove when local doctor Charlie Yang finds her quiet, steady life disrupted by both an abandoned baby in the nativity manger and ex-SEAL Dave Ricker. Are these turn of events too good to be true? Or is Christmas working its magic—for real— Donna Alward’s heartwarming holiday story?
 

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It Must Be Christmas
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Read an excerpt courtesy St. Martin's Press:

Chapter 1



Trudy Maxwell pushed her way through the crowded old toy store, fed up with Christmas shopping, Christmas carols, Christmas in general, and toy stores in particular. Especially this toy store. For the worst one in town, it had an awful lot of people in it. Probably only on Christmas Eve, she thought, and stopped a harried-looking teenager wearing an apron and a name tag, accidentally smacking him with her lone shopping bag as she caught his arm. “Oh. Sorry. Listen, I need a Major MacGuffin.”

The kid pulled his arm away. “You and everybody else, lady.”

“Just tell me where they are,” Trudy said, not caring she was being dissed by somebody who probably couldn’t drive yet. Anything to get a homicidal doll that spit toxic waste.

“When we had them, they were in the back, row four, to the right. But those things have been gone since before Thanksgiving.” The kid shrugged. “You shoulda tried eBay.”

“And I would have, if I hadn’t just found out I needed it today,” Trudy said with savage cheerfulness. “So, row four, to the right? Thank you.”

She threaded her way through the crowd, heading for the back of the store. Above her, Madonna cooed “Santa Baby,” the ancient store speakers making the carol to sex and greed sound a little tinny. Whatever had happened to “The Little Drummer Boy”? That had been annoying, too, but in a traditional way, like fruitcake. She’d be happy to hear a “rum-pa-pum-pum” again, anything that didn’t make Christmas sound like it was about getting stuff.

Especially since she was desperate to get some stuff.

The crowd thinned out as she got to the back of the store. Halfway down the last section of the fourth row, she found the dusty, splintered wood shelf marked with a card that said: Major MacGuffin, the Tough One Two. It was, of course, empty.

“Damn,” she said, and turned to look at the shelf next to it, hoping a careless stock boy might have—

Six feet two of broad-shouldered, dark-haired grave disappointment stood there, looking as startled as she was, and her treacherous heart lurched sideways at the sight.

“Uh, merry Christmas, Trudy,” Nolan Mitchell said, clearly wishing he were somewhere else.

Yes, this makes my evening, she thought, and turned away.

“Trudy?”

“I don’t talk to strangers,” Trudy said over her shoulder, and tried to ignore her pounding heart to concentrate on the lack of MacGuffins in front of her. She’d been polite and well behaved with Nolan Mitchell for three dates, and he’d still dumped her, so the hell with him.

“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t call—”

“I really don’t care,” Trudy said, keeping her back to him. “In October, I cared. In November, I decided you were a thoughtless, inconsiderate loser. And in December, I forgot all about you.”

Madonna sang, “Been an awful good girl,” and Trudy thought, Like I had a choice. The least he could have done was seduce her before he abandoned her.

“It’s not like I seduced and abandoned you,” he said, and when she turned and glared at him, he added, “Okay, wrong thing to say. I really am sorry I didn’t call. Work got crazy—”

“You’re a literature professor,” Trudy said. “Chinese literature. How can that get craz—” She shook her head. “Never mind. You didn’t like me, you didn’t call, I don’t care.” She turned back to the shelf, concentrating on not concentrating on Nolan. So it was empty. That didn’t necessarily mean there were no MacGuffins. Maybe—

“Okay, I’m the rat here,” Nolan said, with the gravelly good humor in his voice that had made her weaken and agree to go out the fourth time he’d asked her even though he was a lit professor, even though she’d known better.

The silence stretched out and he added, “It was rude and inconsiderate of me.”

She thought, So he has a nice voice, so he’s sorry, big deal, and tried hard to ignore him, and then he said, “Come on. It’s Christmas. Peace on earth. Goodwill to men. I’m a man.”

You certainly are, her id said.

We’ve been through this, she told her baser self. He’s no good. We don’t like him. He’s bad for us.

“Okay, so you’ve forgotten I exist. That means we can start over.” He came around her and stuck his hand out. “Hi. I’m Nolan Mitchell and I—”

“No,” Trudy said, annoyed with herself for wanting to take his hand. “We can’t start over. You were a grave disappointment. Grave disappointments do not get do-overs.”

She turned away again and put her mind back on the MacGuffin. Okay, this was the worst toy store in the city, so the inventory control had to be lousy. If somebody had shoved a box to one side …

She dropped her shopping bag and began to methodically take down the faded boxes of toys to the right of the empty MacGuffin shelf. They were ancient but evidently not valuable Star Wars figures, a blast from her past. There was a little Han Solo in Nolan, she thought. Maybe that was why she’d fallen for him. It wasn’t him at all, it was George Lucas and that damn light saber. She put Nolan out of her mind and kept taking down boxes until she reached the last layer. None of them were MacGuffins.

“Trudy, look, I—”

“Go away; I have problems.”

“You have Star Wars problems?”

“No. I have Major MacGuffin problems. If you know where to get one, I will talk to you. Otherwise, leave.”

“I can’t.” Nolan smiled at her sheepishly. “I’m looking for a MacGuffin, too.”

“I figured you more for the Barbie type.” Trudy started to stack the boxes back on the shelf again.

“No, no, I’m a collector.” Nolan picked up a box and put it back for her, and she thought about telling him to go away again, but she really didn’t want to put all the boxes back by herself. “It’s important to get the toys mint in the box.” He held up a box with a crumpled corner. “See, this is no good.”

“Thank you for sharing.” Trudy put another box back. When he continued to help, she decided he could put them back by himself and moved to the dusty boxes to the left of the empty MacGuffin shelf. Action figures from The Fantastic Four. The store really did have an inventory problem; those were completely out-of-date. Well, if there wasn’t a Mac to the right, there would be one to the left. Life could not be so cruel as to send her a Nolan but not a MacGuffin.

She began to methodically remove every Fantastic Four box on the shelf, while Nolan restocked the Star Wars figures and tried to make small talk about the MacGuffin, asking her if she’d bought one there before, if she shopped in the store often, if she knew anybody who’d bought one there. She ignored him until she’d pulled out the last box and there was still no MacGuffin, and then she took a deep breath. Okay, Plan B. Maybe on the other side of the shelf …

“Trudy, I—”

“Unless you have a MacGuffin, I’m not interested.”

“Okay,” he said. “I understand.” He put the last of the Star Wars boxes back and smiled at her. “Have a great Christmas and a happy new year, Trudy.”

He turned to go and she turned back to the shelf, irrationally depressed that he was going. She wanted him to go, that was the point

She heard him say, “Hello, Reese,” and then somebody else said, “Hey, I heard you guys talking about the MacGuffins. You found any?” and Trudy looked up to see the kind of guy who looked like he’d say “dude” a lot: early twenty-something, clueless face, muscled shoulders, tousled hair. The only non-surfer thing about him was his shopping bag with a pink confetti-printed box sticking out of the top. Both the box and the guy looked vaguely familiar, but Trudy couldn’t place either one.

He grinned at her. “Hey, Miss Maxwell, you’re lookin’ good.”

Trudy looked closer but still didn’t recognize him.

“You don’t remember me.” His grin widened with forgiveness, and he added, “I sure remember you,” and Trudy thought, What a shame he’s too young for me. I could seduce him in front of Nolan.

He stepped closer. “I’m Reese Daniels, your father’s research assistant last year. You helped me find that book on the Ming Dynasty your father wanted. You know, in the library.”

“Good place to find books,” Nolan said, his voice considerably cooler than it had been when he’d talked to her.

“Right. Reese. Got it,” Trudy said, placing him now as the guy her father had called the most inept RA of his career.

Reese smiled at her. “I sure have missed your dad since he went to London.”

“Oh, we all have,” Trudy lied, and stuck out her hand. “Call me Trudy.” She looked at Nolan. “You can call me Miss Maxwell,” she said to him. “No, wait, you’re not going to call me at all. Weren’t you leaving?” Reese still held on to her hand, so she took it back.

He nodded to Nolan. “So you and Professor Mitchell found a MacGuffin?”

“Professor Mitchell and I are not together.” Trudy picked up her shopping bag and moved around both of them. “And I haven’t found a MacGuffin yet. But I will.”

Reese followed her around to the next row and the other side of the empty MacGuffin shelf. “Well, I’m not sorry you’re not with Professor Mitchell, Trudy,” he said when they’d rounded the corner. “I never got the chance to get to know you better. Your dad worked me pretty hard. But the best part about being his RA was always seeing you.”

“Thank you.” Okay, for some reason this infant was trying to pick her up. Whatever. She had problems, so later for him.

Trudy zeroed in on the boxes that backed up against the MacGuffin shelf. Dolls this time, with big heads and miniskirts and too much eye makeup. Too bad Leroy wasn’t a girl; she could have loaded him up with pop-tarts. But no, he had to have a violent, antisocial ’Guffin.

“Men.” She put her shopping bag down again and began to take the dolls off the shelf. Over the tops she could see Nolan restocking Fantastic Fours. He shook his head at her, probably disgusted she was flirting with an infant like Reese, and she turned away to see the infant looking at her, confused.

“Men?” he said. “Did I say something wrong?”

“What?” Trudy said, stacking doll boxes on the floor. “Oh, not you. My nephew, Leroy. He’s five and he wants a Major MacGuffin doll, and of course, I can’t find one.”

“Yeah, you had to shop early for those,” Reese said, sounding sympathetic. “So I guess you haven’t seen one here?”

“I would have shopped early if I’d known his father wasn’t going to get him one,” Trudy said, exasperated. “But since his father told me he was going to, I didn’t.”

“So what are you doing over here?” Reese frowned, looking at the dolls she was taking down.

“I’m looking for a misplaced MacGuffin. This place is pretty sloppy, and I’m hoping there’s one stuck at the back of a shelf someplace because if there isn’t, I’m screwed.” She took the last box down and faced another empty shelf.

On the other side, Nolan looked serious as he put back the last of the Fantastic Four boxes. He couldn’t possibly care that she was talking to Reese. Unless he was one of those guys who didn’t want something until somebody else wanted it. He hadn’t seemed like that kind of guy.

He’d seemed pretty much perfect: smart, funny, kind, thoughtful …

Ignore him, she told herself, and started to put the boxes back. Okay, suppose I was hiding a toy so I could come back and get it later, maybe when I had more money. I found the last MacGuffin, but I didn’t have enough to pay for it, so I needed to hide it. The first thing I’d do is go to another row of shelves so nobody who wanted one would trip over it accidentally.

Nolan came around the end of the shelf and started to say something and then saw all the doll boxes on the floor. “Great.”

Trudy ignored him to smile at Reese and then picked up her bag to go look in a different aisle.

“So no MacGuffin,” Reese said. “Really sorry about that.”

“Yep,” Trudy said, and then stopped when she caught another glimpse of the pink confetti-patterned box sticking out of Reese’s shopping bag. “What is that?”

He looked down. “This? It’s some nail polish doll my niece wanted.”

Nail polish doll? Trudy reached down and pulled the box out of the bag. “Oh, my God,” she said, looking closer at the Pepto-Bismol pink box that said: Twinkletoes! in silver sparkly paint. “This doll is twenty-five years old!”

“I think it’s a reissue,” Reese said, sounding confused as he tried to take it back.

“Is the box mint?” Nolan said, and Reese frowned at him and tugged on the box again.

“A reissue.” Trudy held on to the box. Her sister would have a heart attack if she knew they were making these again. She brought the box closer to see through the clear plastic. Yep, it was the same pouting blonde bimbo, Princess Twinkletoes, and there at the bottom next to Twinkletoes’ fat little feet was the same pink plastic manicure set with three heart-shaped bottles of polish—pink, silver, and purple—that had made Courtney’s six-year-old heart beat faster, the Hot Toy of 1981. “Where did you get this?”

Reese yanked the box from her hands and nodded to the next row. “Over there,” he said, sliding the box back into his bag. “There are a lot of them.”

Trudy rounded the corner to see the Twinkletoes shelf, crammed full of hot pink boxes. Evidently lightning did not strike twice; Twink was clearly not the Hot Toy of 2006. You get a little age on you and nobody wants you, Trudy thought. Well, unless you were Barbie. That bitch lasted forever. Trudy picked up a Twinkletoes box.

Reese came to stand beside her. “Your nephew wants a doll?”

“This is the doll my little sister never got,” Trudy said. And she could use some payback this Christmas.

“How old’s your little sister?”

“Thirty-one.”

“Oh.”

Trudy looked up at the confusion in his voice. “Courtney was supposed to get this the Christmas she was six, but my dad forgot. He told her it fell off Santa’s sleigh.”

“Uh huh,” Reese said, probably trying to picture her academic father talking about Santa.

“That was his line for whenever he forgot the Christmas presents,” Trudy said, thinking of Leroy, waiting at home for his MacGuffin. If she didn’t find a MacGuffin, would she be reduced to the “fell off the sleigh” line?

Never.

“Did he forget a lot?” Reese said, sympathy in his voice.

“Pretty much every year. You know professors. Absentminded.” Trudy shook her head. “Never mind. I’m rambling. My mind’s on my sister and my nephew.”

“Well, hey, it’s Christmas. That’s where your mind is supposed to be. Family.” Reese smiled at her, gripping his own Twinkletoes box. “Listen, I have to get going, but maybe we can have coffee sometime?”

“Sure.” Trudy smiled back at him automatically, her mind on the Twinkletoes. Would a gift that was a couple of decades late distract Courtney from her divorce?

Hell, it couldn’t hurt.

Reese walked away, and she looked closer at the Twinkletoes box in her hands. It had a crumpled corner and she remembered what Nolan had said. The box should be mint. She put her shopping bag down and began to take the Twinkletoes boxes off the shelf. Courtney was going to get a perfect Twinkletoes, pink box and all.

Nolan came around the end of the row and sighed when he saw the boxes on the floor.

“Go away.” Trudy took down the next pink box.

“Listen, is there anything I can do to make you not so mad?”

“Mad? I’m not mad.” Trudy studied the Twinkletoes box. Smudge on the top. She dropped it on Nolan’s foot. “Why would I be mad?”

He picked it up. “That’s what I asked.”

She pulled another Twinkletoes box off the shelf and shoved it at him. “Okay, here’s why I’m mad. I didn’t want to go out with you because you were a professor, and I grew up with a professor, and it was no fun because you get forgotten a lot because your dad is thinking about something that happened four millennia ago, so I said no, four times I said no, but you kept at me and I weakened and went out and I really liked you, you bastard, and you were smart and you were funny”—she shoved another box at him—“and I thought, gee, maybe this will work out, maybe this is a professor who won’t forget, but evidently it was just the thrill of the chase or something because you dropped me”—she threw the next box at him and he caught it, balancing it with the first two—“and I never knew why since you never bothered to tell me; you just fell right off the sleigh—”

“Sleigh?” Nolan said.

“… so I’m a little upset with you.

Nolan sighed. “Look, you changed.”

“Of course I changed,” Trudy snapped. “It’s been three months. I’ve grown. I’ve matured. I’m in a new and better place now. A place without you. Go away.” She went back to the Twinkletoes shelf, pulling boxes off at random and dropping them on the floor, appalled to realize that she was close to tears. He did not matter to her; the fact that she’d thought he was darling was immaterial; the fact that she’d told her sister he might be The One was immaterial; the fact that her father had said, Nolan Mitchell, that’s a little out of your league, isn’t it? was … Well, her father was a jerk, so that didn’t count.

“No, you changed from the library,” Nolan was saying. “You were funny in the library. You talked fast and made weird jokes and surprised me. I liked that. And then I took you out and you, well, you kind of went dull on me.”

Trudy stopped dropping boxes on the floor. “You took me to a faculty party. If I hadn’t gone dull on you, you’d have lost points. You’d have been Nolan who brought that weird-ass librarian to the October gin fling. I was helping you.”

“Did I ask for help?” Nolan said, exasperated.

“And you took me to dinner at the department head’s house. You wanted me weird there?”

“I couldn’t get out of that,” Nolan said.

“And then the Chinese film festival.” Trudy dropped another box to the floor. “I thought I was going to see Crouching Tiger Two, but it was some horrible depressing thing about people weeping in dark rooms.”

“It was?” Nolan said, confused.

“Not that you’d know, since you left right after it started,” Trudy snarled, flinging a box at him. “You got a call and walked out of the theater, and I was left with people weeping in Chinese—”

She stopped to stare at the shelf, the next box in her hand, her heart thudding harder than it had when she’d first seen Nolan.

There was a camouflage-colored box at the back.

She dropped the Twinkletoes box and pulled out the camo box and read the label: Major MacGuffin, the Tough One! “Oh, my God.” Trudy held on to it with both hands, almost shaking.

The box was not mint—the cellophane was torn over the opening, a corner was squashed in with a black X marked on it, and there were white scuff marks on the bottom—but the MacGuffin scowled out at her through the plastic, looking like a homicidal Cabbage Patch doll dressed in camouflage, a grenade in one hand and a gun in the other, violent and disgusting and the only thing Leroy wanted for Christmas.

“I do believe in Santa,” Trudy said as Nolan came closer.

“That’s a Major MacGuffin.” He sounded stunned.

“Can you believe it?” Trudy was so amazed she forgot to be mad.

“No,” Nolan said. “I can’t. I knew you were an amazing woman, but this puts you in a whole new league.”

“What?” Trudy said.

“I’ll give you two hundred bucks for it,” Nolan said.

No.” Trudy stepped away from him, holding on to the MacGuffin box.

Nolan smiled at her, radiating sincerity. “I know, your nephew wants a Major MacGuffin, but he doesn’t want that one. He wants the Mac Two. The one that spits toxic waste and packs a tac nuke, right?”

Trudy thought of Leroy, waxing rhapsodic about how the ’Guffin spit green stuff when you squeezed him. “Yes.”

“What you have there is a MacGuffin One,” Nolan said, sounding sympathetic and entirely too reasonable. “Last year’s model. No toxic waste.”

Trudy looked back at the box. It did look different from the picture Leroy had shown her. “What does this one do?”

“It has a gun. Basically, it shoots the other dolls.”

“And the hand grenade?”

“Just a plastic ball. Doesn’t do anything.” He shrugged, unimpressed.

“Damn.” Trudy looked down at the doll’s ugly face.

“Two fifty,” Nolan said.

Trudy glared at him. “No. This is for my nephew. And I have to go now. Thanks for putting the boxes back.”

“Trudy, wait,” Nolan said, but she picked up a perfect Twinkletoes box, stepped over the rest of the pink boxes, and headed for the checkout counter, her belief in Santa restored if not her belief in the rest of male humanity.

*   *   *

Trudy got in the long line to the register, clutching both the Mac and the Twinkletoes boxes, stepping back as a woman in a red and green bobble hat slid in front of her at the last minute. Then Nolan got in line behind her and said, “Three hundred. It only costs forty-nine fifty new. That’s six times—”

Trudy jerked her head up. “No. I’ll never find another one of these tonight.”

Nolan nodded, not arguing. “Okay. Five hundred.”

“Are you nuts?” Trudy said.

“No, I told you, I’m a collector.” He stepped closer, and she remembered how nice it had been having him step closer on the three lousy dates they’d had.

She stepped away.

Nolan nodded to the Mac. “You are holding a doll that is actually rarer than the Mac Two. They didn’t make many Ones.”

“It’s not rarer from where I’m standing,” Trudy said. “I actually have this one, and there are no Mac Twos in sight.”

“That looks like an original box,” Nolan said. “May I?”

“No,” Trudy said, holding on to it and the Twinkletoes box, trying to put her shopping bag between them to block him, but he’d already opened the top and was reaching in. “Hey.” She elbowed his hand away as he pulled out the instruction sheet. “Give me that,” she said, and he opened it so that she could see the drawing of the MacGuffin showing how to detach the silencer from the gun.

“No toxic waste,” Nolan said. “It’s a Mac One.”

He slid the instructions back in the box. “Two thousand,” he said, and then Trudy heard somebody say, “I’ll be damned,” and turned to see Reese staring at her from the front of the checkout line.

“You found it,” he said.

“Yes.” She turned back to Nolan as he closed the box again. “No. I’m not selling it. This one is Leroy’s.” She checked to make sure the MacGuffin was still in the box, complete with hand grenade and gun, and then her cell phone rang.

She fumbled the boxes until she could hold both of them with one arm, looked at the caller ID, clicked the phone on, and said, “Hello, Courtney.”

“Did you get it?” Courtney said, and Trudy pictured her, sitting on the edge of her Pottery Barn couch, her thin fingers gripping her Restoration Hardware forties black dial phone, every auburn Pre-Raphaelite ringlet on her head wired with tension.

“Sort of.” Trudy looked through the plastic window on the front of the Mac box at the fat little homicidal doll. “Damn, he’s ugly.”

“What do you mean, sort of? Did you get him?”

The line moved and Trudy stepped forward, bumping her shopping bag into the woman in the bobble hat.

“I’m so sorry,” she said as the woman turned. “Really sorry.”

The woman smiled at her, motherly in a knitted cap with red and green bobbles, her arms full of teddy bears. “Isn’t it just awful, this Christmas rush?…”

Her eyes narrowed as she saw the MacGuffin. Animals in the bush probably looked like that when they sighted their prey. Trudy clutched the MacGuffin box tighter.

The woman jerked her face up to Trudy’s. “Where did you get that?”

“In the back, shoved behind some other boxes.” Trudy tried to sound cheerful and open. “Boy, did I get lucky.”

The woman’s chin went up. “That’s not this year’s.”

“No toxic waste.” Trudy nodded. “Well, you can’t have everything.”

“I’ll give you a hundred dollars for it,” the woman said, her eyes avid.

Piker. “No, thank you.”

“Who are you talking to?” Courtney said, her voice crackling with phone static.

“A lovely woman who just tried to buy the MacGuffin from me.”

“No!”

“Of course not, but listen, I’ve got last year’s model. The Mac One. I don’t think—”

“Evil Nemesis Brandon is getting this year’s model. The Mac Two. With extra toxic waste.”

Trudy shifted her weight to her other foot. “Okay, this ‘Evil Nemesis Brandon’ stuff? You have to stop that. Do you want Leroy thrown out of kindergarten for calling names?”

“Evil Nemesis Brandon’s mother knows we don’t have a Mac,” Courtney said. “I saw her today at Stanford Trudeau’s Christmas party. She said if we hadn’t found one, Brandon would let Leroy borrow his last year’s doll.”

“Okay, she’s a terrible person, but you have to stop calling her kid names.”

Trudy shifted the boxes, trying not to drop either one, and the eyes of the woman in front of her followed the Mac box. A man with a cap with earflaps, standing in front of the woman in front of Trudy, looked back idly and then froze and said, “Is that a Major MacGuffin?”

“Last year’s model,” Trudy said to him, and shifted the boxes again. It’s like being on the veldt. Gazelle vs. lions.

The woman in front of her stepped closer, and Trudy backed up and bumped into Nolan.

Lots of lions.

“Do you have any idea how humiliating that was?” Courtney was saying. “Do you have any idea—”

“Well, that’s what you get for going to a cocktail party while I’m busting my butt searching for a nonexistent war toy.” The line moved up and Trudy followed, praying she wouldn’t drop the Mac box. There’d be a bloodbath if she did. “I’m all for you getting out and playing well with others, but it’s Christmas Eve and you should be home with your family, baking something, not looking for your second husband. I’m sure Stanford Trudeau is a lovely man with an excellent retirement portfolio, but—”

“I’m baking gingerbread men and a gingerbread house right now, and Stanford Trudeau is five. It was Leroy’s playgroup’s Christmas party. And that woman mocked me.”

Trudy took a deep breath and reminded herself that Courtney had troubles. “Okay, so now you can tell her he has his own last year’s doll. I’m getting ready to buy it right now.”

“Last year’s is not good enough!” Courtney said, her voice rising.

“Oh, get a grip. This one is a collector’s item. It has a hand grenade.”

“And a gun,” Nolan said from too close behind her, obviously listening in.

“And a gun,” Trudy told Courtney as she ignored Nolan.

“Who said that?” Courtney said. “Who’s with you?”

“Nolan.”

“Nolan.” Courtney sounded confused and then she said, “Nolan Mitchell. The Chinese lit prof with the swivel hips you thought was going to be The One?”

“Yes,” Trudy said, cursing her sister’s excellent memory.

“Whoa,” Courtney said. “He’s the only guy you ever wore sensible shoes for.”

“I just ran into him,” Trudy said repressively. “It was an accident. It will not happen again.”

“It could happen again,” Nolan said.

“I don’t believe in The One anymore,” Trudy told Courtney, ignoring him. “But he is right that this Mac has a gun. Very convenient. It can shoot the other dolls.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Well, I don’t think so, either.” Trudy shifted the boxes again, making the woman in front of her twitch. “This is a really horrible toy, Court.”

“I mean it’s not funny that it’s not this year’s. Leroy has been talking about toxic waste for weeks.”

“See, that’s not a good thing.”

“Two hundred,” the woman in front of her said.

“No.” Trudy shifted the box again. “Listen—”

“Leroy says that Evil Nemesis Brandon—”

“Will you stop calling him that? I don’t believe for one moment that Leroy came up with ‘Evil Nemesis Brandon’ on his own. That was you.”

“That was Prescott,” Courtney said, loathing in her voice for her AWOL husband. “But Leroy cares. A lot. He … Wait a minute. Talk to him.”

“Court, no—”

Trudy heard the phone clunk as the line moved up a couple of feet. She stepped forward, thinking, At least Courtney will have the Twinkletoes this year. Courtney had been waiting to polish those toes for twenty-five years.

And now poor little Leroy would probably be waiting another twenty-five years for his toxic waste. She had a vision of herself many years in the future, handing the Mac Two to a sad-eyed thirty-year-old hopeless wreck of a nephew.

“Three hundred,” the woman in the cap said.

“No.” Trudy heard the phone clank again and then she heard her nephew’s voice, bright as ever.

“Aunt Trudy?”

“Hey, bad, bad Leroy,” she said, smiling as she pictured his happy little face under his shock of little-boy-blond hair. “Isn’t it time you were in bed?”

“Yes. And then Santa will bring me a ’Guffin. Hurry up and come home so you can see.”

“You know, Leroy,” Trudy said, looking at the box in her arms. “There are several kinds of MacGuffins and they’re all good—”

“I want the one with toxic waste,” Leroy said clearly. “It’s okay. I told Daddy, and he told Santa, and Santa said he’d bring one. And Nanny Babs said Santa never lies.”

I’m going to kill that fucking son of a bitch. And then I’m going to kill that fucking nanny. Assuming they ever come back from CancĂșn. “Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we? Now you go to bed—”

“I know, and when I wake up, Daddy will be on vacation, but he loves me, and Santa will be here with my ’Guffin.” He breathed heavily into the phone for a moment and then said, “Brandon said there isn’t any Santa Claus.”

Rot in hell, Evil Nemesis Brandon. “What do you think?”

“I think there is,” Leroy said, not sounding too sure. “And I think he’s going to bring me a ’Guffin tomorrow.”

“Right,” Trudy said, holding on to the box tighter.

“With toxic waste,” Leroy said.

Oh, just hell. “Merry Christmas Eve, baby. Go to bed.”

“Aunt Trudy?”

“Five hundred,” the woman in front of her said. “And that’s my final offer.”

“For the love of God, no,” Trudy said to her, and then said, “Yes, Leroy?”

“Do you believe in Santa?”

What is this, a movie of the week? “Well…”

“Mommy says Evil Nemesis Brandon is wrong.”

“Don’t call him that, sweetie.”

“Is he wrong?” Leroy’s voice slowed. “It’s okay if there isn’t a Santa.” His voice said it wasn’t okay.

Nolan nudged her gently, and she realized the line had moved again. “Well, Leroy, I don’t really know if there’s a Santa. I’ve never seen him.”

“Oh.”

Trudy swallowed. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I’ve never seen SpongeBob, either.”

“SpongeBob?” Nolan said from behind her.

“SpongeBob is real. He’s on TV.” Leroy sounded relieved. “So is Santa.”

“Well, there you go,” Trudy said, feeling like a rat.

“That’s the best you’ve got, SpongeBob?” Nolan said.

Trudy turned and snarled, “He loves SpongeBob. Shut up.”

“I know there’s a SpongeBob,” Leroy said, happy again.

“As do we all,” Trudy said.

The woman in front of her let her breath out between her teeth, clearly frustrated. “It’s the old MacGuffin; it’s not worth more than three hundred.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Trudy said to her. “Leroy? Honey, it’s time for you to go to bed.”

“And when I wake up, I’ll get a ’Guffin,” Leroy said. “Good night, Aunt Trudy.”

“Good night, baby,” Trudy said, and the phone clunked again as he dropped it.

“Your nephew’s name is Leroy?” Nolan said.

“It’s a nickname,” Trudy said, not turning around. “His real name is Prescott Thurston Brown II.”

“Oh.” He paused. “Good call getting a nickname.”

She heard the phone clunk again as Courtney picked it up.

“That little bastard Brandon,” Courtney said.

“I think I prefer ‘Evil Nemesis,’” Trudy said. “He’s just a kid, Courtney.”

“His mother is a hag,” Courtney said. “After she offered Leroy a hand-me-down MacGuffin, she asked me if I’d found another nanny.”

“Bitch,” Trudy said, and then smiled when the woman in front of her finally turned away, offended.

“He’s counting on that toxic waste.” Courtney’s voice was still teary, but now she sounded a little slack.

“Court? You haven’t been hitting the eggnog, have you?”

“No, the gin. I’m a terrible mother, Tru.”

“No, you’re not.” Trudy shifted the boxes again.

“I can’t even get my baby toxic waste for Christmas.”

Trudy heard her sob. “Okay, step away from the gin.You’re getting sloppy drunk in front of your kid. Do something proactive. Wrap some presents. Ice your gingerbread.”

“I’m out of Christmas paper. And I tried to ice those little bastard gingerbread men, but their arms kept breaking off.”

“Were you twisting them?”

Above Trudy’s head, the ancient speakers blared Madonna singing in baby talk again.

“Sing ‘The Little Drummer Boy,’” Trudy said to the speakers. “Anything but ‘Santa Baby.’ God, Madonna is annoying.”

“She’s a good mother,” Courtney said. “I’m a terrible mother.”

“No, you just have terrible taste in husbands and nannies.”

“I wasn’t the one who picked out the nanny,” Courtney said, her voice rising.

“Right.” Trudy moved up another step. “Sorry. She came highly recommended.” I’m pretty sure yours is the first husband she ran off with.

“I wasn’t the one who brought home the husband, either,” Courtney cried.

“Okay,” Trudy said, tempted to fight back on that one.

“I’m being punished, aren’t I?” Courtney said. “I stole my sister’s boyfriend—”

“Ten years ago,” Trudy said. “I’m over it. I was over it before you stole him. You’re not being punished. I didn’t want him, which I told you at the time. He’s a jerk, I have an affinity for jerks—”

“Hey,” Nolan said.

“—and you’re better off without him.”

“But not without the MacGuffin!”

“I’m working on that.” Trudy looked around the last toy store in town. How the hell am I going to get this year’s MacGuffin? “I’ll get it, Court.”

“And two toxic wastes,” Courtney said, gulping.

“Two toxic wastes. Got it.” Maybe if she just stuck the toxic-waste packets in the MacGuffin box, Leroy wouldn’t notice the doll didn’t actually spit it.

“And wrapping paper,” Courtney said, sounding less frantic.

“Right.” Trudy grabbed a package of red-and-white paper off the rack that came before the checkout counter and snagged a roll of Scotch tape while she was at it. “Got it. I gotta go. Go do something besides drink.”

This year’s MacGuffin,” Courtney said.

“Your gingerbread is burning,” Trudy said, and clicked off the phone.

“Trouble at home?” Nolan said, sounding sympathetic.

“Absolutely not. Everything is fine.”

He reached past her, nudging her gently with his shoulder as he pulled two bright green foil packages off the counter rack. “You’ll need these.”

He dropped them on top of the MacGuffin box and she saw the words Toxic Waste! emblazoned on them in neon red.

“Thank you,” she said, and then the woman in the bobble cap picked up her bags and left, and Trudy dumped everything onto the counter.

The cashier looked at the MacGuffin box with something approaching awe. “Where’d you find this?”

“On a shelf behind some other boxes,” Trudy said for what she sincerely hoped was the last time.

“Man, did you ever get lucky,” the cashier said, and began to ring it up.

“That’s me,” Trudy said, trying to forget that Nolan was about to leave her again, that the wrong MacGuffin was in front of her, and that Madonna was still lisping about greed overhead. “Nothing but luck, twenty-four-seven.”

“A thousand,” Nolan said from behind her when she’d handed over her credit card and seen the MacGuffin go in one shopping bag and the Twinkletoes in another. “Come on; that’s a damn good offer.”

“No,” Trudy said, picked up her bags, and left.

*   *   *

Fifteen minutes later, Trudy stood on the street corner, juggling her three shopping bags and signaling awkwardly for a cab. There was one around the corner that was stubbornly off duty, and every other one that went by had people in the backseat. They were probably just circling the block to annoy her. She shifted the bags again, her feet aching as the cold from the concrete permeated the thin soles of her boots, trying to think of a way to get a Mac Two short of breaking into Evil Nemesis Brandon’s house and stealing his.

It started to snow.

If I had some matches, I could strike them all and bask in the glow, Trudy thought, and then a cab pulled up in front of her and Reese opened the door.

“I got a lead on this year’s MacGuffins,” he said as he got out to stand in front of her. “Get in and we’ll go get them.”

Trudy gaped at him. “You’re kidding.”

“No. I know this guy.”

Trudy frowned at him in disbelief. “You know this guy. I’ve been to every toy store in town, but you know this guy.”

“Not a toy store. A warehouse.”

“A warehouse. No, thank you.” Trudy reached around him to signal for another cab, which passed her by, its tires crunching in the snow. She craned her neck to see around the corner, but the cab that had been there was gone. The streets were emptying out, stores starting to close. I am so screwed, she thought.

“Oh, come on.” Reese held the cab door open for her and gestured her in. “This guy called around and found out about this warehouse where they got a shipment in, but the delivery people didn’t come back for them. He says there are dozens of them there.” Reese smiled at her, surfer cute. “So the warehouse guys are selling them out the back door. We’re gonna pay through the nose, but hey, they’ve got Mac Twos.”

Trudy put her hand down and tried to be practical—getting in a cab and going to a warehouse with a virtual stranger would be stupid even if he had been her father’s research assistant—but the snow was falling faster, and the bags weren’t getting any lighter, and the stores were closing, and Leroy still didn’t have a MacGuffin. “My feet hurt.”

Reese gestured to the cab again. “Sit.”

Trudy sat down sideways on the backseat with her feet on the curb, balancing her three bags on her lap. “A warehouse.”

“With a big shipment of Mac Twos.” Reese looked down at her, his patience obviously wearing thin. “And I’m betting we’re not the only ones who know about it, so we should get a move on.”

Trudy put her forehead on her bags. The cab radio was playing some cheerful rap lite that Trudy liked until she heard the singer say, “Santa Baby.”

Reese stepped closer, looming over her. “Scoot over so I can get in.”

Trudy lifted her head. “For all I know you’re a rapist and a murderer.”

“Hey.” Reese sounded wounded although he looked as clueless as ever.

“It’s nothing personal. Ted Bundy was a very attractive man.”

“Oh, come on. I worked for your dad. You’re in a cab. You can tell the driver to wait while we go inside.”

A Mac Two. It was too good to be true. Much like Reese the surfer boy hitting on an older college librarian was too good to be true. And he had a cab, too. It strained belief, something she was pretty weak in to begin with. “How did you get a cab?”

“I held out my hand and it pulled up.” Reese sounded exasperated. “Look, if you don’t want to go, I do. In or out.”

“Oh, just hell,” Trudy said.

Reese shook his head and went around to the street side of the cab and got in. “Make up your mind, Trudy,” he said from behind her as he closed his door. “It’s Christmas Eve and it’s getting later every minute.”

Okay, he’d worked with her dad, and Nolan seemed to know him from the department, and he was probably not a psychotic killer, and he said he knew where there were Mac Twos. Did she really have a choice?

She put one foot into the cab, dragging her packages with her, keeping the other foot on the curb.

“So this warehouse,” she began, and then stopped, getting a good look at the inside of the cab. It was festooned with LED Christmas lights blinking red and green in time to the music, the song’s refrain whispering, “Gimme, gimme, gimme, Santa Baby.” She saw Reese look up at the ceiling and followed his eyes to a shriveled piece of mistletoe safety-pinned to the sagging fabric. “My God.”

“Mistletoe,” Reese said.

“Pretty limp,” Trudy said, squinting at it.

“I’m not.”

“I have Mace.”

He ducked his head and kissed her, bumping her nose, and it was nice, being kissed in a warm cab by a younger man, even if there was snow drifting in through the open door and the foot she still had on the curb was freezing. Gimme, gimme, gimme, Trudy thought, and wished he were Nolan.

Reese pulled back a little. “Thank you for not Macing me.”

“I was thinking about it,” Trudy said, and he kissed her again, putting his arms around her and pulling her close, and this time she kissed him back, because it was Christmas Eve and he might be getting her a Mac II. And because he was a pretty good kisser even if he wasn’t Nolan, who was a grave disappointment anyway.

Then Nolan leaned into the cab and scared the hell out of her.

“So, where are we going?” he asked cheerfully.

“Where did you come from?” she said, her heart hammering.

“Looking for a cab.” Nolan smiled at her. “Can’t find one.” He nudged the leg she had stretched out to the curb. “Can I share yours?”

“No,” Reese said, evidently not planning on taking any classes from Nolan in the future.

“It’s polite to share a cab on Christmas Eve, Mr. Daniels,” Nolan said.

“I’m not polite, Professor Mitchell.” Reese tightened his grip on her.

Trudy looked from one to the other. They were glaring at each other, which was sort of flattering until she remembered that they probably both wanted the Mac Two more than they wanted her. Well, there had to be safety in numbers. What were the chances they were both serial killers?

“I’m polite.” Trudy pulled her foot into the cab and scooted over, stopping when her hip touched Reese’s.

Nolan slid in until his hip touched hers, and shut the door.

The cab grew warmer.

“Where are we going?” he said. “Tell me it’s a place with MacGuffins.”

Trudy nodded. “A warehouse. With MacGuffins mint in their boxes.”

“Way to go, dude,” Nolan said to Reese.

“Out,” Reese said, still hanging on to Trudy.

“Oh no.” Trudy pulled away, leaning into Nolan in the process. “I’m only going if he goes.”

“I’m touched,” Nolan said.

“No, you’re not,” Trudy said, moving back from him again. “Safety in numbers. Any number. Not you specifically.” She smiled at Reese. “We’ll all go together.”

Reese looked as though he might argue and then sighed. “Go,” he said to the cabbie, and gave an address that Trudy knew was in the warehouse district, probably now dark and deserted and half an hour away.

Well, at least she knew Nolan wouldn’t attack her. The dumbass had no interest in her body at all.

“Gimme, gimme, gimme,” the radio sang.

“I hate Christmas,” Trudy said, and settled back as the cab jerked into motion.



copyright © 2006 by Argh Ink

copyright © 2014 by Donna Alward
copyright © 2015 by Mandy Baxter
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8 comments:

  1. I admit, even though it is sort of early, I really am already getting excited for the holidays! Thanks so much for the chance to win a copy of this!

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  2. Fun book, I read Hot Toy by JC last year and loved it, lot of fun. Never to early to read a Christmas story!

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  3. Funny kid, very clever too for suggesting ebay! lol

    Happy hump day!

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    Replies
    1. I Love Jenny Crusie Braine I want to read that one especially

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  4. Oh that looks cute! I've not read Cruise before but I think I have one of hers on my shelves :D

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    1. Wow I'm surprised you haven't read her Anna, you'd love her quirky humor

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