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The White Christmas Inn by Cassidy Cayman (1)

Chapter 1

Holly Buchanan stretched one leg of the white glitter tights up over her knee. “Not going to work,” she sighed, abandoning them for a red and green striped pair. “Why are all our elves so tiny?” Hoisting the undignified leggings as far as they would go, they were still about three inches too short. “When was the last time I had to be an elf?” she asked the deserted dressing room. “Did I gain that much weight?”

Thankfully there was no one around to answer her. It was bad enough half the staff was out with a raging flu. The fact that she’d soon be packed into full elf regalia was enough to make her spirits sink.

She spied another pair of tights sticking out of a locker and waddled over to inspect them. Yes! That was Mona’s locker and she was one of the taller employees. They were still striped but at least they should fit. As she struggled to get out of the too small pair, she practiced singing the lyrics to the elf anthem. It really had been a while since she’d had to be an elf, but she thought she should have every song from all the shows indelibly imprinted on her brain after a lifetime of hearing them.

Next she held up the two costumes she had to choose from and sighed deeply, finally picking the slightly longer one. It was still going to be way too short.

“Darn tiny elves, why are they all size two?” she muttered, sucking it in and reaching around to grapple with the zipper. “Nope.”

Sweating, she decided to leave it until the last second. Bernie could help her right before they had to go out on the stage. The sweet old man had known her since she was born. He wouldn’t blush too hard to see her back. The final thing on her checklist was to replenish the candy cane supply since Petra had crushed six boxes of them when she fainted that morning.

Holly frowned as she made her way to the storage closet. She loved that her employees were dedicated, but to the point of passing out? Petra was probably patient zero, coming in when she should have been home resting and not spreading her germs to everyone else. And then the poor thing was the last to give up, only leaving the inn because she was hauled away on a stretcher.

Holly hoped she didn’t make anyone think they needed to work themselves to death. They were frequently short-staffed and she frequently complained about it. She vowed to stop doing that. The staff was as good as family to her, which was probably why she felt so comfortable having a good grumble in front of them sometimes.

On the way out of the dressing room she caught a glimpse of herself in the large three way mirror. “Father Christmas,” she gasped, turning to and fro to see all the horrifying angles. “This isn’t very family friendly. I’m the world’s hoochiest elf.” She tugged down the skirt and tried to stuff her ample bosom further into the costume. “Once the zipper’s up I’m going to be obscene.” She sighed and stuffed her phone into her cleavage. There was no help for it. They needed an elf. All the elves were out sick. That meant Holly stepped in, same as she stepped in every time she was needed.

Inside the massive walk-in storage closet, she snapped on the light, shading her eyes as the overhead bulb reflected off piles of tinsel. Past the shelf of Santa beards, past the rows of souvenir ornaments, past the stockings and garlands and snowglobes. The ceiling-high stack of candy canes were stored next to a refrigerator which housed boxes of chocolates for the gift shop. She took the six boxes she needed and stared at the refrigerator.

“Don’t,” she whispered.

She knew she shouldn’t have any chocolate, even though she hadn’t eaten in hours and it would have soothed her nerves immeasurably. But the zipper might not go up. She recalled the little white faux fur capes they used during the Mrs. Claus can-can. She could whip one of those babies around her shoulders and hide the stupid zipper.

Opening the refrigerator door, she gazed with love at the beautiful chocolate covered cherries her mother made. The mint cremes looked like pale green puffs of heaven. The stock was smaller than it was in high season. Holly tugged at her skirt with worry. Even during the last couple holidays, they’d had alarmingly few visitors. They did the nightly dinners and shows, but they needed people to actually check in if they were going to stay afloat. Ah, well. Her grandfather always told her that was hotel life. Ups and downs. And he would have known.

She popped a chocolate cherry in her mouth and slammed the fridge door, hearing a soft whump from inside the freezer. Normally they didn’t keep anything inside that freezer, using the big kitchen one. Curious, she opened it. A large manilla envelope was half-taped to the ceiling of the freezer with duct tape. It had broken free and thumped against the side, looking like it might fall all the way at any second.

Mystery! She pulled the meaty envelope free and peeked inside. It contained a large sheaf of papers with the name of a law firm at the top. Her heart sank and the delicious gooey chocolate in her mouth suddenly became difficult to chew. She rifled through the papers, seeing bank letterhead as well. A bank and a law firm? No, she didn’t like the looks of that at all.

Pushing aside a miniature silver Christmas tree, she sat on the floor of the closet and spread the papers out in front of her. A few minutes later she took her phone from her velvet elf dress and shakily called her sister.

“What’s going on?” Ivy asked. There was coffee shop noise in the background and not for the first time, Holly felt an annoying stab of envy. Ivy had left for the big city two years earlier and only came back for Christmas. Actual Christmas.

“I’m looking at a bank notice that says we have a mortgage on the inn. We’re in arrears and are about to be foreclosed upon,” she read, surprised her voice sounded so calm.

“That’s nonsense,” Ivy said. The background noise faded away. Her younger sister by fourteen months was taking her seriously enough to go somewhere quiet. “Grandpa bought the place with cash he saved up after he got out of the army. We all know the story. There’s never been a mortgage so we can’t be in arrears.”

Holly was grateful Ivy had said “we”. Ever since Ivy had made it clear she wanted to live a normal life in a place that wasn’t always red, green, and glitter, Holly had felt a bit abandoned and alone.

“I’m looking at the paperwork right now. Apparently it was — Oh my gosh, Ivy, the mortgage was taken out a year ago. And no payments have been made in eight months. We’ve got a month to come up with it.”

“But who took out the mortgage?”

Holly rifled through and groaned. “Uncle Clarence. How did he do it without mom’s signature? Crappity crap, I think it’s all in his name. That’s how it was going to go, remember? Age order. Grandpa left it all to Uncle Clarence, then mom would be next in line for it.”

Ivy made a pfft noise. “As if it’s the royal jewels.”

“Shut up. This is serious.” Holly’s voice finally cracked. “We’re never going to be able to make this kind of money in a month.”

“Calm down, it could be a misunderstanding. I don’t think Uncle Clarence would—”

“He did,” Holly wailed. “Something’s really wrong. It’s something shady I’m sure, like gambling debts.”

“It’s not gambling debts. Where would he gamble?”

“Online?” Holly asked, then they both snorted at the same time. Their uncle couldn’t turn his computer on without help. Holly had walked into his office once to find him helplessly poking at the monitor button and swearing under his breath.

“It’s nothing shady, Hols. Calm down.”

“We owe eighty thousand dollars. And it was taped to the top of the storage freezer. He clearly didn’t want me or mom to find out.”

“Whoa,” Ivy said at the amount. “You sure mom doesn’t know about it?”

Holly shook her head vigorously, though Ivy couldn’t see. “There’s no way. She’d be so nervous and upset I’d … but wait a second. She has been acting kind of strange lately.”

“Strange how? Giant loan on the family business strange?”

“No, just a little spacy.”

“She’s always been a little spacy. But you’re probably right. I think she’d crumble under the pressure of trying to keep a secret like that. It has to be all Clarence.”

“What was he thinking? That when they come and start hauling away the furniture we wouldn’t notice?” She gasped for breath and loosened her costume more.

“Are you hyperventilating over there?” her oh so concerned sister asked.

“I’ve got Mona’s elf costume on and it’s suffocating me. Everybody’s out sick with the flu.”

“Well at least you don’t have to pay them,” Ivy said. “Just kidding, I know you’ll pay them. Don’t bust a seam. What would we have to do to make that kind of money?”

Holly huffed, but tried to do the math in her head. “We’d have to be at capacity for the entire month. I can’t remember the last time we were full. Not even last December.”

“Oh.” Yes, that little tidbit sobered Ivy right up. “Why didn’t you tell me things were so bad?”

Because she clearly didn’t care about the place, only breezing in for a week — the busiest week of the year no less — and barely lifting a finger while she was there. Ivy chose her life in Brooklyn and didn’t look back. Holly swallowed her bitterness.

“Things wouldn’t be that bad if we didn’t have a mortgage. Which up until five minutes ago, I didn’t know we did.” A ringing sounded from beyond the door of the storage closet. Holly was so attuned to that bell she would have heard it if a herd of elephants was stampeding by. “Ivy, the bell just rang! I think we have a guest!”

“Send me all the info on that so-called mortgage and I’ll do some sleuthing. Uncle Clarence’s passwords are always easy to crack.”

The bell rang again and Holly felt the same thrill she always got when a guest arrived. Sharing the magic of her home with others always wiped away any doubts she sometimes had about staying.

“It’s ringing again, I have to go. But call me the second you find something.”

“Okay, go! Get the guest,” Ivy said. “I’ll pray it’s a busload of Christmas-loving old people.”

That would have been too good to be true. Holly stuffed the papers back in the freezer and scurried out to greet the first guest they’d had in three weeks.

***

Mason Barry hollered at his assistant over the phone. He never yelled at her, never yelled at anyone, but the deluge of sleet and rain that suddenly battered his car and made him almost swerve off the road startled him.

“Sorry, Shel, you wouldn’t believe the mess that’s pouring down on me right now. I can’t see a thing.”

“Then end the call and pull over.” As usual, his longsuffering assistant gave him good advice.

“I can’t see to pull over. And it’s all ditches, I’d get stuck.” He hissed a string of swear words and slowed to a crawl. There hadn’t been much traffic on the upstate New York road but if there was a bright red freight truck in front of him now he wouldn’t have been able to see it until he rammed into it. And he’d already had a fairly bad day. Getting in an accident in the middle of a typhoon wouldn’t improve his mood one bit. “What’s with this weather?”

“Didn’t you check before you left the internet sensation’s house? There was a giant blob on the radar since this morning.” She sighed a forced out, over the top sigh, to make sure he heard it above the crashing rain. “What happened with her, anyway? You never messaged me.”

Mason glowered at the phone on the passenger seat. He quickly cut his eyes back to the road, thinking it couldn’t be possible that even more rain was coming down than a few seconds before. “Seems like a no-go. She wants to keep her options open.”

He tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice but he’d been counting on signing Amanda Snyder to his fledgling talent agency. He had a small but solid stable of talent since striking out on his own three months earlier. He believed in them, but so far all he’d managed to book for them were a few commercials. He was beginning to lose his belief in himself.

Signing Amanda would have been a real coup. Her amazing singing voice, gorgeous face, and hilarious sense of humor had made her blow up on various video and social media sites. She was raking in advertising money and selling merchandise, but he knew he could take her to the next level. He could absolutely get her a record deal or a part in a television show. He’d have more credibility with casting directors to have actual working artists at his agency, which would attract more artists to want to sign with him. Yeah, he’d put some eggs in a basket that morning when he’d set out to woo her, and he was irritated that they’d all been smashed to bits.

“Who needs her? A ventriloquist came into the office today,” Shelly said, not cheering him up one bit. “Okay, it looks like there should be a hotel about a mile from your location.”

“I apologize for ever thinking you were a stalker for tracking my phone,” he told her. “Are you laughing about something?”

“This hotel you’re about to stop at looks … well, wait and see. There should be a big sign. That’s when you turn right. You won’t be able to miss it according to this ad.” She gurgled another laugh. “Call me when you’re safe.”

She ended the call before he could say anything else. He concentrated on inching his way forward, praying no one would ram him from behind. Finally he saw the sign he wasn’t supposed to be able to miss, a red and green blur through the downpour. He eased his way to the right and miraculously ended up on another road. Sure enough, a few minutes later he saw an imposing old mansion with a wide, circular drive. Thankfully, there was a covered valet area, but no valet ran out to greet him. He climbed the steps of the wraparound porch, festooned with twinkling Christmas lights.

They were either a little early or a lot late and he began to doubt the quality of a hotel that would keep their Christmas lights up all year long. And lit, on top of it. His mother would have had a fit. The double doors had an ivy design etched along their edges and two fat wreaths adorned the glass insets.

Pushing open the doors, he stepped through onto a thick, welcoming carpet. The storm racket hushed as soon as the doors clicked shut behind him. He looked around and stopped dead in his tracks, thinking he knew the reason Shelly had been cracking up.

The first thing he saw was a twelve foot tall Christmas tree with a calmly smiling angel atop it. Colorful lights twinkled through the branches and reflected off the large gilt mirror over the fireplace it sat next to.

The lobby was paneled with gleaming wood, making him think he’d stepped back in time to an old-fashioned hunting lodge. Each wall had strands of white blinking lights draped along the moldings. The huge fireplace was hung with stockings, and two plush chairs and a dark green velvet sofa made a cozy sitting area. Two pillars wrapped from top to bottom with wide red ribbon and garlands dangling with shiny ornaments and glass icicles framed an archway that led to the check-in counter. He turned in a circle and resisted rubbing his eyes to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. It was the beginning of October!

“Please don’t let this be some kind of Bates Motel situation,” he mumbled as he hurried to the counter and banged on the bell.

The other side of the archway was slightly calmer but no less filled with holiday cheer. A large gold sign behind the desk welcomed him to The White Christmas Inn. He sighed with relief. A theme hotel, not a place full of delusional psychos. And he only needed to ride out the storm. A placket on the desk announced the restaurant had won Best New York State Dining Experience six years in a row. He rang the bell again and went back to inspect the tree. Where would they get a Christmas tree at this time of year? Perhaps they grew them out back? He snorted back a laugh as he poked at the branches to find it was a very good fake.

“We only have a real one after Thanksgiving,” a voice said from behind him.

He whirled guiltily at picking at the tree. He thought he’d been gobsmacked at the decor, but standing in the archway was the sexiest elf he’d ever seen. Dressed in a red velvet number that hugged every curve and showed almost every inch of her shapely red and green striped legs. Auburn hair fell across her shoulders, making a nice frame for her breasts, which seemed about to break free from her outfit. He wasn’t mad about that, but had been raised better than to keep gawking and dragged his eyes up to a smiling face and eyes bright enough to compete with all the other lights in the place. He didn’t represent models at his agency, but she was beautiful enough he wanted to give her his signing pitch. She could have sold a whole lot of makeup with that creamy skin and those lush lips.

He’d only wanted a place to ride out the storm, maybe have a cup of coffee in the restaurant. Now he thought he might be too tired to drive back into the city. And who knew how long the storm would last? Yes, he definitely needed to check in.

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