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Authors: Joanne Fluke

Tags: #Mystery, #Romance, #Thriller, #Crime, #Contemporary, #Chick-Lit, #Adult, #Humour

Sugar And Spice

BOOK: Sugar And Spice
7.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The Christmas Stocking
Chapter One

Los Angeles, California

October, Two Months Before Christmas

It was a beautiful five-story building with clean lines, shimmering plate glass and a bright yellow door. A tribute to the architect who designed the building. An elongated piece of driftwood attached to the right of the door was painted the same shade of yellow. The plaque said it was the Sara Moss Building. The overall opinion of visitors and clients was that the building was impressive, which was the architect and owner’s intent.

The young sun was just creeping over the horizon when Gus Moss tucked his briefcase between his knees as he fished in his jeans pocket for the key that would unlock his pride and joy, the Sara Moss Building named after his mother.

Inside, Gus turned off the alarm, flicked light switches. He took a moment to look around the lobby of the building he’d designed when he was still in school studying architecture. He thanked God every day that he’d been able to show his mother the blueprints before she’d passed on. It was his mother’s idea to have live bamboo plants to match the green marble floors. It was also her idea to paint clouds and a blue sky on the ceiling. The fieldstone wall behind the shimmering mahogany desk was a must, she’d said. Fieldstones he’d brought to California from Fairfax, Virginia, in a U-Haul truck. There was nothing he could deny his mother because he was who he was because of her.

There was only one picture hanging in the lobby: Sara Moss standing next to a sixty-foot blue spruce Christmas tree that she had his father plant the day he was born. That tree was gone now from the Moss Christmas Tree Farm, donated to the White House by his father the same year his mother died.

Over his objections.

He’d gone to Washington, DC, that year and took the Christmas tour so he could see the tree. He’d been so choked up he could hardly get the words out to one of the security detail. “Can you break off a branch from the back of the tree and give it to me?” For one wild moment he thought he was going to be arrested until he explained to the agent why he wanted the branch. He’d had to wait over two hours for one of the gardeners to arrive with a pair of clippers. He’d had a hard time not bawling his eyes out that day but he’d returned to California with the branch. Pressed between two panes of glass, it now hung on the wall over his drafting table. He looked at it a hundred times a day and it meant more to him than anything else in the world.

Gus stared at the picture of his mother the way he did every morning. As always, his eyes grew moist and his heart took on an extra beat. He offered up a snappy salute the way he’d always done when she was right about something and he was wrong. At this point in his daily routine, he never dawdled. He sprinted across the lobby to the elevator and rode to the fifth floor where he had his office so he could settle in for the day.

As always, Gus made his own coffee. While he waited for it to drip into the pot, he checked his appointment book. A light day. He really liked Fridays because they led to the weekend. Still, it was the middle of October and business tended to slow down as a rule. He wished it was otherwise, because the approaching holiday season always left him depressed. He told himself not to complain; he had more business than he could handle the other ten months of the year. When you were named “Architect of the Year” five years running and “Architect to the Stars” six years running, there was no reason to complain. His burgeoning bank balance said his net worth was right up there with some of Hollywood’s finest stars. He wasn’t about money, though. He was about creating something from nothing, letting his imagination run the gamut. Architectural Digest had featured eleven of his projects to date and called him a “Wonder Boy.”

Everyone in the business who knew or knew of Gus Moss were aware that when the new owners moved into one of his custom-designed houses, Gus himself showed up wearing a tool belt and carrying a Marty Bell painting, his gift to the new owners, that he hung himself.

Gus loved this time of the day, when he was all alone with his coffee. It was when he let his mind go into overdrive before the hustle and bustle of the day began. He ran a loose ship, allowing his staff to dress in jeans and casual clothing, allowing them to play music in their offices, taking long breaks. He had only three hard and fast rules. Think outside the box, never screw over a client, and produce to your capability. His staff of fourteen full-time architects, four part-timers, and an office pool of seven had been with him from day one. It worked for all concerned.

As Gus sipped his coffee he let his mind wander. Should he go to Tahoe for some skiing over Christmas?

Or should he head for the islands for some sun and sand and a little snorkeling? And who would he ask to accompany him? Sue with the tantalizing lips, Carol with the bedroom eyes or Pam the gymnast with the incredible legs? None of the above. He was sick of false eyelashes, theatrical makeup, spiky hair, painted on dresses and shoes with heels like weapons. He needed to find a nice young woman he could communicate with, someone who understood what he was all about. Not someone who was interested in his money and had her own agenda. At thirty-seven, it was time to start thinking about settling down.

Time to give up takeout for homecooked. Time to get a dog. Time to think about having kids. Time to think about putting down roots somewhere, not necessarily here in California, land of milk and honey, orange blossoms and beautiful women.

Gus settled the baseball cap on his head, the cap he was never without. Sometimes he even slept with it on. It was battered and worn, tattered and torn but he’d give up all he held dear before he’d part with his cap that said Moss Farms on the crown. He settled it more firmly on his head as he heard his staff coming in and getting ready for the day.

Gus finished his coffee, grabbed his briefcase and headed for the door. He had a 7:15 appointment with the Fire Marshall on a project he was winding up. He high-fived several members of his staff as he took the steps to the lobby where he stopped long enough to give Sophie, the Moss Firm’s official receptionist/greeter, a smooch. “How’s it going this morning, Sophie?”

“Just fine, Gus. When will you be back?”

“By nine-thirty. If anything earth shattering happens, call me on the cell. See ya.”

As good as his word, Gus strode back into the lobby at 9:27. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed an elderly couple sitting on a padded bench between two of the bamboo trees. Sophia caught his eye and motioned him to her desk. “That couple is here to see you. They said they’re from your hometown. Their names are Peggy and Ham Bledsoe. They don’t have an appointment. Can you see them? They’re here visiting a daughter who just graced them with their first grandchild.”

Gus grinned. “I see you got all the details. Peggy and Ham here in California! I can’t believe it.”

“We’re of an age, darling boy. Go over there and make nice to your hometown guests.”

Gus’s guts started to churn. Visiting with Peggy and Ham meant taking a trip down Memory Lane and that was one place he didn’t want to travel. He pasted a smile on his face as he walked over to the patiently waiting couple. He hugged Peggy and shook Ham’s hand. “Good to see you, sir. Miss Peggy, you haven’t changed a bit. Sophie tells me you’re grandparents now. Congratulations! Come on up to the office and have some coffee. I think we even have sticky buns. We always have sticky buns on Friday.”

“This is a mighty fine looking building, Augustus. The lady at the desk said it’s all yours. She said you designed it.”

“I did,” Gus mumbled.

“Mercy me. I wish your momma could have seen this. She was always so proud of you, Augustus.”

They were in the elevator before Gus responded. “Mom saw the blueprints. She suggested the fieldstone and the bamboo trees. Did you see the picture?”

“We did, and it is a fine picture of Sara. We tell everyone that tree ended up in the White House,” Ham said.

Gus was saved from a reply when the elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open. Peggy gasped, her hand flying to her mouth. “This is so…so grand, Augustus.”

Gus decided he didn’t feel like making coffee. He was too nervous around this couple from home. He knew in his gut they were going to tell him something he didn’t want to hear. He pressed a button on the console. “Hillary, will you bring some coffee into my office. I have two guests. Some sticky buns, too, okay?”

Gus whirled around, hoping to delay the moment they were going to tell him why they were really here.

“So, what do you think of California?”

“Well, we don’t fit in here, that’s for sure,” Peggy said.

“We’re simple people, Augustus. All those fancy cars that cost more than our farm brings in over ten years. The stores with all those expensive clothes where they hide the price tags made my eyes water.

Our son-in-law took us to Ro-day-o Drive. That was the name of it, wasn’t it, Ham? Hollywood people,”

she sniffed. “I didn’t see a mall or a Wal-Mart anywhere.”

Will you just please get to it already. Gus licked at his dry lips, trying to think of something to say. “I just finished up a house for Tammy Bevins. She’s a movie star. Would you like to see a picture of the house?”

“No,” the Bledsoes said in unison. Gus blinked and then blinked again just as Hillary carried in a tray with an elegant coffeepot with fragile cups and saucers. Linen napkins and a crystal plate of sticky buns were set in the middle of a long conference table.

“Will there be anything else, Gus?”

“Nope, this is fine. Thanks, Hillary. Hey, how’s the new boyfriend?”

“He’s a hottie.” Hillary giggled. “I think I’ll keep this one.” Gus laughed.

Peggy Bledsoe pursed her lips in disapproval. “Shouldn’t that youngster be calling you Mr. Moss?”

“Nah. We’re pretty informal around here, Miss Peggy. Sit down. Cream, sugar?”

“Black,” the Bledsoes said in unison.

Gus poured. He filled his own cup and then loaded it with cream and four sugars. I hate coffee with cream and sugar. What’s wrong with me? He leaned back in his chair and waited.

“We stopped by the farm before we left, Augustus. Your father isn’t doing well. I don’t mean healthwise.

The farm has gone downhill. Business is way off. Last year he sold only two hundred Christmas trees.

This year if he sells half that he’ll be lucky.”

Gus was stunned. Moss Farms was known far and wide for their Christmas trees. People came from miles around to tag a tree in September. Normally his father sold thirty to fifty thousand trees from November first to Christmas Eve. He said so.

“That was before your momma died and you lit out, Augustus. Sara was the heart and soul of that farm.

She did the cider, she did the gingerbread, she managed the gift store. She did the decorations, she made the bows for the wreathes and the grave blankets. She even worked the chain saw when she had to. All that changed when she passed on. You should have gone back, Augustus. That farm is falling down around your father’s feet. The fields need to be thinned out,” Peggy snapped.

Gus snapped back before he could bite his tongue. “I did go back. Pop didn’t want me there. Told me to get out. I call three times a week—the answering machine comes on. He never calls me back. I send money home and he sends it back.”

Ham drained the coffee in his cup. “I don’t think he’s going to sell any trees this year. The Senior Citizens group rented the old Coleman property and are setting up shop. Tillie Baran is spearheading the effort.

They ordered their trees from North Carolina. They’re going all out to raise money to refurbish the Seniors’ Building. Just last week at our monthly meeting, Tillie said her daughter is coming home from Philadelphia to take over the project. Little Amy has her own publicity company. That means she’s the boss. When you’re the boss, you can take off and help your momma,” he said pointedly.

“You wouldn’t believe how good that little girl is to her momma,” Peggy said with just a trace of frost in her voice.

Gus reached for a sticky bun he didn’t want. “And you think I should go home to help my father and save the day, is that it? Like little Amy Baran is doing.”

“The thought occurred to us,” Peggy said. “I think your momma would want you to do that.”

Before Gus could think of something to say, Ham jumped into the conversation. “Tillie went out to the farm and asked your father if he would sell her the trees at cost if he wasn’t going to promote his own farm. It would have been a good way to thin out the fields but he turned her down flat. So now the Seniors have to pay a trucking company to bring the trees from North Carolina.”

Gus searched for something to say. “Maybe the farm is getting too much for him. It’s possible he wants to retire. It sounds to me like he’s had enough of the Christmas tree business.”

“Moss Farms is his life, Augustus. Your father can at times be a cantankerous curmudgeon,” Peggy said.

“He’s all alone. With no business, he laid everyone off.”

Gus felt sick to his stomach. He thought about his teenage years on the farm when his father worked him like a dog. That was when his father thought he was going to stick around and run the farm, but his mother was determined he go to college to make something of himself. How he’d hated the fights, the harsh words he heard late at night. All he wanted was to get away from the farm, to do what he was meant to do—create, design and see his creative designs brought to life. All he’d done was follow his mother’s dream for him. He wanted to explain to the Bledsoes that he wasn’t an uncaring son. He’d done his best where his father was concerned but his best wasn’t good enough. He reached for another sticky bun he didn’t want. He hated the sugary sweet coffee. He wished he could brush his teeth. Even as he decided that silence was a virtue at this point in time, he asked, “More coffee?”

BOOK: Sugar And Spice
7.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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