Preview: Return to Christmas

Return to Christmas
Return to Christmas is available now at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

It was an icy day in December, and Madison Simcoe was shaking as she pulled on her leather gloves and glared into the setting sun, the mammoth office building behind her. The cold was the least of her worries—she was vibrating from pure, helpless rage. She desperately needed to punch something, but strangers didn’t deserve it, and she’d break her fist if she tried to slam it into the Time-Life Building. She could do nothing but try to walk it off, brush it off, laugh it off, and distract herself with anything she could.

Philip Ronson had put his slimy hands on her, breathed in her ear, and said “You don’t have to pretend I don’t turn you on, Maddie. I know you want it.” And he’d bumped his nasty hard-on against her hip for emphasis.

He’d tried it before—sooner or later someone always tried it—and she’d left jobs she loved because of it. She’d leave this one as well, if she had to, but there would always be someone new. Me Too was a great movement for women, but it did nothing to the men in charge. She was brilliant at avoiding asshats like Ronson, wunderkind vice president of Epithet, the trendiest influencer in all of mass media. But there were always new administrative assistants for men like Ronson to prey on.

She wanted to smack him so badly. She wasn’t crazy about her job—in the end it was simply selling things to people who didn’t need them and couldn’t afford them; God’s work. She ought to leave New York City, she thought as she started down the crowded sidewalk, in step with everyone heading toward the Port Authority buildings and Penn Station on their way to the suburbs. She’d tried living in those neat little towns a few train stops from Manhattan, and they’d felt wrong. The closest she’d come to happiness was in the countryside up in Vermont, but even that hadn’t been quite right.

It was her major inborn flaw—always feeling she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’d lectured herself on being shallow. She should know by now that the grass was never greener on the other side—it just seemed that way—but still, the restlessness followed. She’d really hoped to stick with the aptly named Epithet, to prove to herself that she could, but that was becoming less of an option. She ought to be grateful to the stunningly attractive, absolutely revolting Philip Ronson for giving her the excuse to leave, but she still wanted to punch him.

It was freaking cold, the wind whistling through the cement and granite fjords of New York, and she pulled her leather coat more tightly around her. It was trendy, but it wasn’t warm, and at that moment she would have given anything for an ugly, puffy parka, or even a cloth coat like her Republican great-grandmother had worn with such pride. She needed some thin lacy long johns if she were going to make it in the city for another year.

She ought to go back to her soulless cubicle of an apartment, with the walls covered with old movie posters, but the condo had barely enough floor space to move—she could pace just as easily in her shower. She could open a good bottle of wine and drink it all, she could go out to a club and pick up someone, or even call Stephen, her on-again, off-again lover from work. He was currently in a relationship, but that had never stopped him from making a booty call before, and she doubted it would now. Maybe she just needed someone to hold her.

No, not Stephen. He was perfectly adept at getting her off with admirable efficiency, but he was a lousy kisser and a stranger to the thought of cuddling. Not that she wanted him hanging around afterward, but it had begun to feel like rote, and even the release of sex no longer seemed worth the soullessness of it.

Maybe a little retail therapy. That was probably what kept her in New York—they had the best shopping in the world. She had some money from her grandmother, and she was paid ridiculously well with no one to spend the money on. She didn’t need a damned thing, but that was a non-issue. You didn’t have to need something in order to spend money on it.

Macy’s would be a madhouse. The parade a few weeks ago had been spectacular, if cold, with only the oversized elephant balloon going haywire, and the window decorations this year were supposed to be spectacular, the best since the late 1940s, according to one of the many podcasts she listened to. She could buy herself a ludicrously expensive handbag—corporate street cred depended on how much you paid for your purse—and tax deductible besides. 

She could get a glass of wine at Felix’s Hungarian Cafe, stuff herself on exquisite pastries or fresh salads if she were feeling virtuous. She could skip Macy’s and head uptown, try on designer clothes and even order something if the mood struck her—she’d probably need it for the extravagant holiday parties she would be required to attend—but she had a sentimental attachment to the grand old store, even if it was growing stodgy after more than a hundred years in existence. Maybe she’d treat herself to a very nice pair of earrings, diamonds maybe—cold and hard like the pit of her stomach. Her hair was razor cut short enough to do the earrings justice. If that didn’t do it, she’d go home and see if watching DVDs of old black-and-white Christmas movies would help. 

She’d gotten to the point where not even Christmas in Connecticut would cheer her—she needed to find something later and cheerier, maybe Lauren Bacall in All I Want For Christmas? She couldn’t handle most of the Hallmark moves that clogged the airways—all the heroes looked like Mormons. 

It seemed as if nothing could put her in a Christmas spirit, especially not today. When she was a child, her mother had said she was her Christmas baby, always singing carols in midsummer, mangling words at age three so they came out as “peace on earth and Mrs. Meyers,” but right now she was feeling more like the Grinch. Philip Ronson was enough to turn anyone into a Scrooge. 

It was a depressing time of year nowadays. Her father had left when she was young, her mother died ten years ago, and she’d been an only child. There was no one to care whether she lived or died except the boss whose ass she covered daily, no one to buy presents for, no one to spend the holidays with. The one time she’d tried to organize something, her hipster friends had decided a little cocaine would be just the thing to brighten the season, and she’d lost the last bit of childlike enthusiasm she had left.

Still, even she couldn’t resist the sheer abundance of Macy’s on Thirty-Fourth Street. If that couldn’t cheer her up, nothing could. They must still have a DVD section somewhere—not everyone streamed. She needed to replace her copy of Miracle on 34th Street—she’d accidentally bought the colorized version and never replaced it. Movies always helped, and she could scrounge for new holiday albums as well, though how many copies of “Run, Run Rudolph” did she really need?

No, now she had a goal in mind, and her mood lifted just slightly even as the wind whipped through the city, chilling her to the bone. It managed to feel colder in Manhattan than it ever had been in the Maine town she’d grown up in, where the temperature had often dipped to twenty below zero. The buildings around her held and radiated the chill, sending it everywhere like an industrialized snow queen was ruling over the city.

Let it go, she sang to herself with a wry grimace as she quickened her pace. She’d left her fashion-mandated stilettos back in her office, her track shoes some small improvement as she crossed Forty-Second Street with the ever-present tide of humanity. Macy’s lay only a few blocks ahead, and she could see the dazzling Christmas lights over the crowds, flashing green and red. The bells in the background reminded her that the corner Santas were already in place—had been for a couple of weeks now, and she felt in her coat for the crumpled bills she always carried. She was such a sucker, she thought, and quickened her pace. If she wasn’t going to have a merry Christmas ,then at least she could help someone else to have one.

The Macy’s building was massive, of course, the familiar Art Deco edifice warming her with its sense of tradition. She would have loved living back in the golden era of American retail, in the thirties and forties, with the huge department stores in their prime. She looked up, way up, at the bright neon lights and the big red star, and she felt just the faintest stirrings of childhood wonder. Believe, it said, and she wished she could believe in anything at all, much less Christmas. 

Waiting dutifully till the light turned green, she crossed the street and headed straight for one of the solid brass revolving doors, probably there since the building was first erected. There were at least three street Santas lining the sidewalk, and she needed to get in out of the cold. Only one could benefit from her largess, which was a crumpled twenty dollar bill in her gloved fist.

The one closest to her looked like every fake Santa she’d ever seen—cheap suit, shiny fake beard and hair, a grim “Ho, ho, ho” coming out in time with the incessant ringing of his clamoring bell. The one in the middle looked like the real thing, as some of them did. That was no wig on his head or chin—he really was blessed with his own snowy locks and rosy cheeks and expensive-looking red-velvet suit.

And farthest away stood the ringer, literally, a burly man dressed in a trench coat over his saggy red velvet costume, the white beard a reasonable length, his silver hair cropped to his shoulders. Clearly he didn’t get the memo on what Santas were supposed to look like, and even though he stood by the massive revolving doors to the Great Hall, most shoppers were ignoring him. Actually, most shoppers were ignoring all of the Santas, something that never failed to surprise her, convincing her that New York really wasn’t the place for her.

There was a blast of icy air, so sharp and direct it almost seemed determined to keep her away from Sad Sack Santa, but she had never been easily discouraged, and she plowed straight on through, ignoring the people and things that were in her way. This one must be homeless, and she prepared herself for pungent street odors, but instead, he smelled like peppermint, lemon and ginger as she drew closer. 

She shoved the twenty into the bucket, trying to conceal the size of the bill with her hand, when the old man met her eyes, and for a moment she was breathless. Those weren’t they eyes of a homeless man, nor the eyes of someone playing a part. They were warm and wise and knowing, and he touched her hand just as she was about to drop the twenty.

“Macy’s will have the answer,” he said, and there was a spark of humor in those wonderful eyes. “They have everything.”

For a moment she didn’t move his gloved hand resting lightly on hers, the noise and the people surrounding them but unnoticed. Of course, he was simply a shill for the store, though one was scarcely needed. If someone was braving the crowds to go into Macy’s during the holiday season, then they knew the wonders that awaited them.

She moved her hand, and he released her immediately, and his gentle smile was almost as surprising as his eyes. No one smiled like that in the fast-paced city. “Go find your answer, child.”

She stumbled back, knowing she should be offended by the condescending “child.” She wasn’t. For the first time in months, in years, she felt loved and cared for. And then another blast of wind hit her, picking up the trash from the street and tossing it in the air, and she was herself again, turning away from the bizarre encounter without another thought.

The heavy, revolving doors were right there, and she pushed against the heavy plate glass, stepping into the tiny carousel and through, into the heart of American capitalism.

And froze.

Something was wrong. She blinked, looking around through the jostling crowds as she tried to focus, but everything seemed muted. The shoppers moving around her were dressed in dark clothes, their voices muffled, and she shook her head in an instinctive effort to clear it as the world slowly came back into focus.

And then she laughed, for the first time in what seemed like weeks, laughed in pure delight as she took in her surroundings. How had she missed hearing about this? Macy’s was holding some sort of holiday event as a tribute to their glory days, with the entire front section of the store decked out like something from an old movie. The glass cases with the high-polished wood trim gleamed, the sales reps were dressed in period costumes that wouldn’t have looked wrong on Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck, and even the customers were in the spirit of the thing, cosplaying the hell out of the experience, down to their shoes, she noticed, looking down at the shiny wood floors that were no longer covered by cushy carpeting. This whole thing must have cost a freaking fortune—if she’d come up with it at work, it would have been immediately shot down as too costly, and that would have been a mistake. It was brilliant. They’d probably take a bath on the whole thing, but she loved it.

The Great Hall was absolutely enchanting, the customers playing their parts as they moved through the aisles, some with costumed children as well, keeping up a period-perfect litany on proper department-store behavior.

She looked around for the cameras—surely they wouldn’t have pulled off something this elaborate without major plans to document and monetize it. In fact, the atmosphere hadn’t been her imagination—the vast area was slightly darker, with only incandescent lighting piercing the late autumn darkness.

“Excuse me, lady, but you’ll need to move.”

She jerked, startled, then realized she’d been standing, frozen, in front of the door, blocking the path of those milling reenactors. She turned to see a New York City cop, looking like he’d stepped out of a movie as well. He even had a nightstick, she realized to her amusement, and no sign of a body cam or any of the modern equipment guards wore.

“I’m so sorry, officer,” she said cheerfully, stepping out of the way. “I was just so in awe of this whole performance.”

The man frowned. “I beg your pardon, young miss. What performance?”

So it was a fully immersive occasion, she thought with a grin, the last of her anxious mood vanishing. This was just what she needed.

“Sorry,” she said instantly. The actor was looking at her with a disapproving glower—probably because she was wearing the wrong clothes. “I’ll just go and find the videos.”

The cop’s broad, Irish forehead creased. “The what? Better ask over at the information desk, miss. They’ll help you.”

She chuckled, moving past him, ignoring the elegant desk that was now placed near the front of the store, where a deferential gentleman in a double-breasted suit waited to assist customers. Where had they ever found so many authentic 1940s costumes? If she’d had the budget for something like this, she might actually enjoy her job.

She couldn’t believe she hadn’t heard even a whisper of this living fantasia that Macy’s was creating. Usually Epithet knew of things months in advance, and it would definitely have taken months to pull this thing off, but there hadn’t been a word. Major mistake on the store’s part. Unless this was going on for more than a day, most people were going to miss it. 

The deeper she moved into the store, the more the charade continued, leaving her in awe. She couldn’t even find the center escalators—they were somehow disguised by the antique displays, so instead, she headed for one of the ancient wooden ones still in service. The crowds were thinning out, and for a moment she wondered what time it was, then relaxed. It was only about five-thirty now—she had at least three and a half more hours.

Electronics were up on the eighth floor, and she simply stayed in the narrow corridors that held the old wooden escalator system until she reached it. As usual, the upper floors were less crowded, and when she stepped off there was, surprisingly, no one in sight. Christmas season and no shoppers in the Notre Dame of American department stores? Unthinkable. Pushing through the swinging doors that separated the two sections of the massive building, she stepped into the bright electronic glare of technology heaven.

Or at least, she should have. There was no large bank of digital screens staring at her, no thumping bass advertising the latest in stereo equipment, even if they’d stopped selling CDs. In fact, it was no misperception—the room really was full of shadows, curtains draping counters, covering displays, lights on dim. The place was deserted, almost eerie, and Madison could feel her stomach knot in pain, like she was being squeezed by a boa constrictor.

And then someone moved, detaching himself from the shadows, straightening to his full height and looking at her with nothing but irritation. “Store’s closing,” he announced flatly. “And this floor’s under construction. Time to leave, lady.”

She stared at him, momentarily gobsmacked. He was a god—tall and blond and gorgeous despite his glower, and the period detail on his costume was so damned good she was jealous. He was in shirtsleeves, those white sleeves rolled up to reveal strong forearms, and his tailored tweed pants were held up by leather suspenders. His hair was brushed back from his striking face so that he would have looked more like an old-school matinee idol if it weren’t for his forbidding expression. He crossed his arms across his chest, further drawing her attention to those muscles, while he stared at her, waiting for something.

And then she jerked, startled. She’d never let beautiful men intimidate her—if she did, she would have lost the battle long ago. New York was filled with aspiring actors, and this prime specimen would be one of them, hired for this special promotion. She drew herself up. 

“The store is open until ten,” she said loftily. In fact, it might close at nine or nine-thirty, but she was willing to hazard a guess rather than back down. However, there was no question that this floor wasn’t open for business. Usually they locked the doors and put up a sign to keep curious customers from wandering in. 

“Since when? Macy’s has closed at five-thirty for the last forty years—they’re not about to change now.”

In fact, it had kept those antiquated hours for almost a hundred years, changing only a few decades ago, but the man didn’t seem particularly interested in a conversation. “Well, they have changed,” she said, somewhat lamely. “Just ask anyone who works here.”

“I work here.”

“For one day,” she scoffed.

“For nineteen months, two weeks, six days and…” he glanced at the old-fashioned wristwatch on his arm “…four hours.”

“You’re not an actor?” she said, surprised. Men with faces like that, not to mention arms like that, usually exploited their natural gifts.

He lifted his head and took a few steps toward her. Damn, he was tall, too. Her kryptonite, if he weren’t such a grump. 

Before he’d simply been dismissing her—now his razor-sharp gaze had focused on her. “I’m not an actor—I told you, I work here, where you’re not supposed to be. Do I need to call the security guard, or are you going to turn that sweet little fanny around and go away?”

Her fleeting trace of interest dissolved into irritation. “You can leave my sweet little fanny out of it, asshole. I wouldn’t be caught dead here.” She had time to catch his astonished reaction before she stalked toward the doors.

His voice stopped her just as she reached them. “Lady, just who the hell are you?”

“A customer,” she said icily, stepping into the passageway.

It was still and quiet, with only the sound of the well-oiled doors closing behind her, and she headed for the escalator, then stopped in dismay. It was no longer running—no clackety-clack of the ancient machinery, and there was no way she was going to walk down seven uneven flights on the damned thing. She looked around her, then moved to the other side of the floor, pushing against those doors, which were, of course, firmly locked.

Typical, she thought. Despite the brief wonder of the historical reenactment going on way below her, she should have known that she wasn’t going to get out of her funk so easily. There were elevators at each end of the massive building, as well as in the center, and she had no choice but to face old Grouchy Pants again. Or would have, if those doors hadn’t been locked as well.

He must have done it the moment she left, she thought, disgruntled, and banged on the door with one fist. “I need to use the elevator!” she called. 

No response of course. She banged again, knowing it was useless, before she gave up and went back to the escalator, staring down at the graduated wooden slats in dismay. Thank God she had her running shoes on—her stilettos could have gotten her killed.

She glanced down at her feet, past the pastel flowered dress that went just below her knees, down the shimmering silk stockings to the navy-blue spectator pumps she was wearing. What…the…hell…?

A bolt of pain shot through her head, disbelief exploding through her synapses, the constriction in her stomach clamped down, and darkness closed in around her. She was falling, falling…


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