Excerpt of Cozy Christmas

"Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall
bring forth a son, and they shall call his name
Immanuel." Matt. 1:23


Whitney Leigh rolled her eyes. "Romance! It's getting to be an epidemic."

Because she was alone in the car she didn't try to temper her frustration. Fortunately, the editor of the Bygones Gazette had instructed her to use a different approach this time. He wanted her to praise the progress of the stores involved in the "Save Our Street" redevelopment project to commemorate their six month anniversary. If he had asked her for one more fluff piece about all the engagements, and even a recent marriage, involving those new businesses, she would have screamed. Just thinking about it made her want to.

Parking in front of the Cozy Cup Café and pausing behind the wheel of her vintage, yellow Mustang convertible, she shivered. A warm, wool coat, scarf and gloves were not enough to make up for the lack of insulation provided by the cloth-topped car. Although it was dear to her heart, there was a lot to be said for a thick, solid roof during the winter, particularly in Kansas. 

She pulled the ignition key, set the brake and slid out. Myriad Christmas lights twinkled around nearby shop windows and hung from the colorful awnings that fronted the block of renovated stores.

The "Save Our Street" merchants' decorating committee had wound garlands of holly, tinsel and shiny ornaments around the old-fashioned-looking light standards and topped them with banners heralding the holiday season. Coordinated wreaths decked every store entrance while bouquets of silk poinsettias had replaced real flowers around the bases of the evergreens in the quaint planters along the refurbished street. The whole effect was charming. Welcoming. 

However, it was also freezing outside. Whitney leaned in to grab her tote bag, slammed the car door and picked her way cautiously through the dusting of fresh snow toward her current assignment. 

As a lifelong citizen of Bygones she was supposed to have been perfect for the job of ferreting out the hidden facts concerning the town's mysterious windfall. Too bad she had failed. Instead of an expose', she'd ended up filling her column with news of people's love lives, when what she needed were reasonable, definitive answers to her more serious queries. But she was not going to quit investigating. No, sir. Not until she'd uncovered the real facts. Especially the name of their secret benefactor. 

A few things were already known, not that that helped much. First, a mysterious philanthropist had bought a whole block of empty buildings on Main Street, then bankrolled a group of merchants from other places to open new businesses in every available location except the old movie house. Only outsiders could apply. 

"What was that all about?" Whitney murmured to herself. Some former shopkeepers had fled when Bygones had started to die but that didn't mean there were no other folks capable of stepping in. If some wealthy person had really wanted to help the town recover and survive after the disastrous downturn in the economy and the permanent closing of Randall Manufacturing, the least he – or she – could have done was relegate the grant money to locals. 

The legal arrangement had included them as employees, yes, but never as bosses. That point, alone, was enough to convince her that the anonymous benefactor was not from a small town. He or she obviously had no earthly idea how the minds of country people worked – or how they looked after their own. 

She slipped and slid the last yard to the Cozy Cup Café, used the door handle to regain her balance, stepped inside and wiped her boots on the mat, stomping off globs of wet snow as she admired the delicate wreath that hung just inside the glass door. It wasn't the customary green and red colors. Instead, it had been fashioned of brass and gold ribbons and ornaments with snowy accents that perfectly picked up the mocha and cream motif of the shop. 

And speaking of coffee… Hearty aromas of freshly ground beans and warm drinks like cider and hot chocolate, as well as the shop's trademark specialty brews, washed over her. If she had not been worried that the handsome barista who was currently greeting her with a smile would misinterpret her overt expression of bliss, she might have sighed audibly.

"Cold out there?" Josh Smith asked Whitney.

"Not as cold as it will be in another month." She removed her teal blue gloves and matching scarf and dropped them into the tote, then began to unbutton her cream-colored coat.

"What can I do for you?"

Whitney was tempted to launch right into her real reason for being there. Instead, she merely said, "Fix me something warm?"

"Like what?"

"Surprise me."

Judging by his lazy smile and the twinkle in his greenish hazel eyes, she decided she had made a mistake by giving him too much leeway so she added, "As long as it's mostly chocolate."

"Picky, picky, picky."

She couldn't help smiling in return as she settled herself at one of the small, round, glass-topped tables and hung her coat over the back of the wrought iron chair. There was something unique about this place. And, truth to tell, the same went for the other new businesses on Main. Each one had filled a need and become an integral part of Bygones in a mere five or six months. That, alone, was amazing, particularly given the townspeople's original negative reaction to the so-called invasion.

Josh Smith was a prime example. He was what she considered young, twenty-eight to her twenty-five, according to his original business application, yet he had quickly won over the older generations as well as the younger ones. Some of the retired citizens had begun to make his shop their go-to place for morning coffee, gossip and camaraderie, while teens had adopted his internet cafe as if they had been waiting for it all their lives. 
Perhaps they had. Josh's computers were state of the art, with game-playing capabilities far beyond anything she had ever seen.

Wearing a brown and white striped apron over jeans and a polo shirt, he stepped out from behind the counter with a steaming cup in one hand and a taller, whipped-cream-topped tumbler in the other. 

"Your choice," he said pleasantly, placing both drinks on the table and joining her as if he already knew this was not a social call. 

"I see you're not too busy this afternoon. Do you have time to talk?" She reached into her tote for her digital recorder, note pad and a pen.

"I always have time for my favorite reporter," he said. 

"How many reporters do you know?" She took a cautious sip from the cup, holding it in both hands to warm her icy fingers.

"Hmm, let's see." A widening grin made his eyes sparkle. "One."

Whitney felt a frisson of energy zing up her spine. Of all the new folks, this was the only person whose teasing set her on edge and sometimes made her tremble like dry autumn leaves in a gale.

Trying to mask her nervousness she put down her cup and tucked stray strands of blond hair behind her ears before donning her glasses and picking up the pen.

"Mind if I ask you a question first?" Josh said amiably. "Sort of turnabout's fair play?"

"I guess not. I have a whole list for you."

He rested his elbows on the table, leaned forward and studied her for a moment. "Why do you wear those glasses instead of contacts?"


"Those clunky glasses. The heavy frames."

She noticed that he was no longer grinning like a Cheshire cat so she made a face at him. "That's a silly question. I need them to read."

"To read? Or as a mask to hide behind?" he asked quietly. "You have beautiful green eyes but I have to really work to see them clearly behind those lenses."

"Why would you want to?" Whitney asked before she realized she might not want to hear his answer. Instead of waiting, she waved her hands as if erasing a chalkboard and added, "Never mind. Forget it. There's already an epidemic in this crazy town and I do not intend to let myself catch whatever it is that's going around?"

Josh rocked back and raked his fingers through his short, auburn hair before lacing his fingers behind his neck. "You've lost me."

"Romance, engagements, endless talk of marriage," Whitney blurted, immediately coloring with embarrassment. "Do you realize that nearly every one of the new shops is the setting for some kind of pairing. It's ridiculous."

"Considering it an illness is not very flattering to the couples involved."

"Listen," Whitney drawled, "You can pooh-pooh it all you want. I don't think it's a bit funny." She thumbed through her notes, found what she was looking for and began to read. "First, there was the florist, Lily Farnsworth and Tate Bronson. They're already married. Then Melissa Sweeney at the bakery took up with her own Mr. Cupcake, Brian Montclair. They're getting married next month."

"Well, yes, but…"

Whitney touched the paper with the tip of her pen. "I'm not through. The hardware store is just as bad. Patrick Sweeney is going to marry Gracie Wilson, providing she doesn't run away and leave him standing at the altar like she did her first groom. And what about Allison True?"

"That one shouldn't count," Josh argued. "Allison and Sam Franklin had a history already. I understand the only reason she was considered for one of the grants to start her bookstore was because she'd been away from Bygones for so many years she was no longer thought of as a local."

"Fine." Whitney sighed and paused for a sip of her mocha latte. "Then explain the pet store romance and engagement."

"You can't include that one, either."

"Why not?"

"Because Vivian Duncan works for Allison, not Chase Rollins. His store had nothing to do with it."

Looking past him and seeing a group of teens entering, Whitney said, "You'd better go. You have customers."

"That bunch?" Josh barely took his eyes off her. "They just want to play computer games. They can log themselves on without my help."

He rested his chin in his palms and gave her another lazy grin. "So, what was it you wanted to interview me about? I'm all yours."

At that moment, all Whitney could think to ask was, How did you get so good-looking? She was certainly not going to give voice to anything like that.

Instead, she pushed her glasses up with one finger on the bridge of her nose and pretended to concentrate on her notes while she wrestled to subdue her errant emotions and wished her cheeks didn't feel so unusually warm.