Authors: Shelley Freydont
Every store on the square, including McCready’s Pub, was decked out in swags of pine boughs and white lights that would be turned on simultaneously at the Celebration of Lights ceremony. Wreaths tied with bright red bows adorned the Victorian lampposts in the square. In the center of the green a row of colorful alpine chalets had been brought in to house the town Santa as well as a gift store and a food station where the line of children and their parents would be treated to homemade donuts and apple cider compliments of Waterbury Farms.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Liv. “You’d think the residents of Celebration Bay would want to adhere to the traditions that keep business healthy.”
“They do, but the Thornsbys aren’t residents.”
“You mean they’re not even local?”
Ted slowly shook his head. “They live in Keeseville. However, Clarence has temporarily rented a place for Grace in town.”
“Keeseville is only twenty minutes or so from here.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want her to have to drive the roads at night.”
Ted snorted. “Or maybe she has her own reason for staying in town.”
“Heavens. I don’t even want to delve into that one.”
“Better left buried.” Ted guided her across the street to the Corner Café, where electric candles flickered from each window. They walked along the sidewalk toward Trim a Tree, just admiring the ambience. The windows of A Stitch in Time, the fabric and quilting store, displayed a hanging row of festive quilts. One was filled with a big green fir tree made of varying patterned squares; another was decorated in wreaths and bows. There were Santa-face pillows with yarn beards, scarves with jacquard reindeers, red and green striped knit hats.
All the stores in the square were decked out in their holiday best. The atmosphere was quaint and tasteful, a reminder of Christmas long ago that made Celebration Bay a favorite of families up and down the East Coast.
And then they reached the door of the Trim a Tree shop.
Ted snorted. “Somebody, please send in the bad-taste police.”
It was worse than it had been that morning, when Liv passed by during her routine stops at the Apple of My Eye Bakery and the Buttercup Coffee Exchange. Granted, it had been early, and she hadn’t had her first drop of caffeine. But where there had been a blank showcase window except for two LED-lit palm trees, there were now a row of plastic dancing hula girls complete with leis, coconut bras, and Santa hats. Santas with red noses and round bellies hanging over jammer shorts carried surfboards or held up coconut drinks with umbrellas sticking out of the tops. Hanging in the center back was a rectangular banner portraying a reindeer plastered, spread-eagled, to a chimney.
Liv and Ted exchanged looks.
“I enjoy a theme as much as the next person,” Liv said, “but as the Upper East Side mothers say, ‘This is totally inappropriate behavior.’ It looks like we’re advocating drunk Santas.”
Just as they were about to go inside, the door opened and Edna and Ida Zimmerman bustled out, looking anything but in the Christmas spirit. Edna and Ida were retired schoolteachers who lived in a large Victorian several blocks from the square. Liv rented the carriage house behind their house.
“What on earth?” Liv said as she jumped aside so the sisters wouldn’t plow into her.
“Oh, Liv, Ted,” Miss Ida said. “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.” She grasped the Toys for Tykes collection can to her green woolen coat. Her coat was buttoned up to her chin, and a red crocheted scarf was tied neatly around her neck. A matching red hat was pulled down over her ears, leaving just a few wisps of white hair flying from her face. “That poor little boy.”
“What little boy?” Liv asked.
“Actually,” said Edna, the taller and less-forgiving sister. She had taught the older grades, and she still had a way of taking control of a situation with her no-nonsense attitude. She was dressed in tweed trousers and a corduroy car coat. A scarf with a giant “Ho Ho Ho” billowed down the front. “You’re just in time to see what shenanigans are going on in that store. Disgusting. What were the Newlands thinking?”
“What little boy?” Ted asked.
“Penny Newland’s boy, Bobby,” Miss Ida said. “That Grace Thornsby was supposed to hire Penny to work in the store. That was part of the sale agreement. And now this.”
“Best laid plans,” Edna said. “She came in to get her paycheck. Bobby tried to pet that mangy cat that Grace thinks is so fancy.”
“And it scratched the poor little thing,” Ida added. “It was only natural that he got scared and tried to get away from that nasty creature—and you know I love animals, but not that one. He tripped and fell down. He’s just a baby. He wasn’t hurt, but unfortunately, he broke a few ornaments.”
Edna sniffed. “You’d think it was the crown jewels instead of some cheap glass from China.” She stepped away from the door. “Don’t let her run roughshod over you,” she told Liv.
Liv smiled. She loved both of her landladies, and they loved her dog and by association, they liked her pretty well, too.
“That’s why I brought Ted,” Liv said and grinned.
“Hmmph,” Edna said.
“And on top of everything, I think that awful Santa has been smoking,” Ida said.
“Definitely smoking,” Edna confirmed. “You could smell it halfway across the room. Next thing we know he’ll be taking swigs out of a bourbon bottle between kiddies. We’ve got to get rid of them before this goes on any longer.”
Liv couldn’t have agreed more.
“We’d better get going, Edna,” Ida said. “I’m sure every other merchant will be more generous than that . . . that Scrooge. Merry Christmas, Ted, Liv.”
Ted tipped the brim of his plaid hunter’s hat. “Miss Ida, Miss Edna.” He turned to Liv. “Shall we gird our metaphorical loins and confront the . . . words fail me.” He opened the door and gestured Liv in.
“Coward,” Liv said, and stepped ahead of him into the Trim a Tree shop. She jumped at the “Ho, ho, ho” that greeted her, then realized that it wasn’t the nearly comatose Santa slumped on a PVC throne reading a newspaper, but a motion-activated plastic Santa standing by the entrance.
In the center of the room, Penny Newland, a young single mother, balanced her three-year-old son on one hip as she tried to pick up pieces of broken glass from the floor. A few feet away a thin, dark-haired woman stood with her hands planted on her nearly nonexistent hips. A mangy-looking orange cat peered from behind her ankles.
Grace Thornsby was the worst case of miscasting Liv had ever seen. Not only her name, a contradiction in terms, but her whole person. Her hair was pulled severely back from her face. She was dressed in black slacks and sweater with an array of heavy, gaudy gold jewelry. And her expression could only be called sour.
A malevolent Olive Oyl with an unfriendly cat.
The cat jerked his head toward Liv, hissed, shot out from behind the manager’s feet, and disappeared beneath one of the artificial Christmas trees.
Not very customer friendly, Liv thought. And if that cat was going to attack every child that tried to pet it . . .
Ted bent down to help Penny pick up the rest of the broken pieces. She gave him a heartfelt smile. She was a pretty girl, with light brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail, and a round little face that was currently blushing furiously.
“Ms. Thornsby,” Liv began.
The manager pulled her angry stare from the unfortunate Penny to Liv. And Liv had a quick déjà vu of a mother of the bride she’d once had a confrontation with over the bride’s choice of color scheme.
Liv had handled her with her usual efficiency, though the MOB had taken every opportunity to make Liv’s life miserable, while she could. Which, fortunately, had been only a matter of a few days.
Here, they were looking at a good month of the unfriendly atmosphere of a store that was supposed to be bubbling over with good cheer. Instead, it was imbued with bad feeling and reeked of smoke.
“Ms. Thornsby,” Liv said again, and introduced herself and Ted, who finished his cleanup and came to stand beside her.
“Just a minute.” Ms. Thornsby turned from Liv to Penny, who was trying to make herself and her son invisible. “You’ll have to make arrangements for that child if you intend to continue working here. I can’t have you bringing him to the store. I don’t know why Clarence thought he owed your family any favors. He paid more than this place was worth. I’ll expect you tomorrow morning at nine, without the child.”
“But my paycheck,” Penny ventured in a small, timid voice.
“You’ll have to wait until tomorrow, after I’ve taken out the amount of the damages.”
Penny opened her mouth but closed it without speaking.
“I want to go home,” Bobby whined.
“Shh, shh.” Penny deliberated for a second. It was pretty obvious that she needed the money today. But she mumbled, “I’ll be here tomorrow.” She turned to leave.
“Do you have a ride?” Ted asked.
“I can walk. Jason’s car broke down. It isn’t far.”
“If you wait . . .”
Penny shook her head, clearly on the verge of tears. And with another mumbled thank-you to Ted, and avoiding looking at anyone else, she ducked out the front door to the mechanical “Ho, ho, ho” of the plastic Santa.
That did it. It was Christmas, for Pete’s sake. “Ms. Thornsby, I’m Liv Montgomery, event coordinator for Celebration Bay.” Getting no response, she plowed ahead. “As I’m sure you’re aware, all businesses are required to read and agree to certain town-wide stipulations.” She reached into her bag and pulled out the town ordinance.
“Here’s the one that Trim a Trim signed, agreeing to abide by the town ordinances, specifically the one-Santa rule. . . .”
She indicated the paragraph, gave Grace a pointed look, and glanced toward the North Pole alcove, where the Santa had roused himself enough to sit up. He was watching Liv, the newspaper dropped in his lap. The fake white beard hung from a string around his neck, revealing a square jaw covered with dark stubble.
What was wrong with these people? How did they think this would appeal to customers? And it would be such a blemish on the town’s festivities.
Grace Thornsby just stood there.
Liv began to lose her patience. So she cut to the chase. “Since your Santa is in direct conflict with the signed agreement, I must ask you to cease and desist. Santa and his accoutrement must be removed immediately.”
For a moment, the grinning face of Chaz Bristow, the local newspaper editor, flashed before her. He always laughed at her for her use of overly formal language. But Liv had found it to be a great intimidation technique. And it usually got the job done.
“What the hell?” Santa heaved himself from the dais, pulled the beard over his chin, and slouched over to where they were standing. His belt lay by the side of the throne, and the top buttons of his Santa suit were undone, revealing polyester padding. He was a disgrace to the name of Santa, and Liv just hoped no one came in before she could get rid of him.
The manager motioned him away with a flick of her long fingers and a jangle of bracelets. He stopped but didn’t retreat.
“You signed this agreement.” Liv held it up for her to see.
The woman’s eyes flitted over the paper and her mouth tightened. “You’ll have to talk to my husband. He signed the lease agreement, and he’s the one who insisted on the Santa. And as far as this ordinance, the real estate agent assured us that it was never enforced.”
Ted and Liv exchanged glances. Ted had called that one.
“I’m afraid the agent misinformed you. The ordinance is enforced. Agreement is mandatory.” Liv didn’t actually know that it was enforceable; she’d been in town only since September. All she did know was that it was going to be enforced from now on.
“Either you discontinue your use of Santa immediately, or the town will have no recourse but to close you down.” Liv smiled her don’t-mess-with-me smile that had quailed bridezillas and CEOs alike. “Shall we say . . . by tomorrow morning, ten o’clock. That should give you time to remove the Santa chair and replace it with something else before the parade tomorrow evening.”
“The hell you will,” Santa growled. He turned on Grace. “You can’t fire me. I turned down other work for this job.”
“Make him an elf,” Ted suggested.
“I’ll do no such thing. I paid a fortune for that suit. Is the town going to reimburse me?”
“Not until her plastic hula girls grow white beards,” Ted said sotto voce in Liv’s ear.
“I heard that.” Grace glared at Ted.
Just as Ted had intended, Liv thought.
“Lose the Santa, Grace,” Ted said.
“Tomorrow morning. I’ll just drop by to see how you’re doing.” Liv didn’t wait for an answer but turned on her heel. Ted rushed to open the door for her, as if he were an office lackey instead of her right-hand man. She stepped over the threshold.
Over the mechanical greeting, Liv heard the hired Santa say, “You’re crazy if you think you can get rid of me.” The door shut on the rest of the sentence.