Welcome to week two of CJM’s Short Story Showdown! Each week we pit two short stories from CJM authors against each other. Vote for your favorite! You can vote on the poll in the social media link on our Facebook page or Twitter page or you can comment with your vote. Everyone who votes and comments Done! will be entered to win a free signed copy of a CJM publication. Are you ready for the first stories? Here we go!
Mason grunted as he lifted the weights above his shoulders. The job at Wells Electronics would be his highest paid gig yet, but something bothered him about Timothy Wells and his chicanery. He had the first of three sessions scheduled for tomorrow. Normally, speaking gigs excited Mason, but this one was different. He didn’t agree with Timothy’s decision to squash rumors of the pending sale, but he still agreed to follow through. After all, he designed his speeches to help people achieve their best selves. They would need that come January when Timothy announced the sale. He was preparing them for the inevitable, right?
Mason placed the weights on the floor and wiped his brow. Reimagining his office was a brilliant idea. Exercise cleared his mind. His personal assistant thought it odd when Mason got rid of his desk and turned his office into a gym. But it suited his personality and increased his productivity. Ideas for speeches and coaching sessions came freely when exercising. Plus, it helped him stand out in the public speaking world. How many motivational speakers worked from a gym and a cellphone?
He glanced at his watch, almost lunch time. Bethany requested a lunch date to discuss their Christmas plans. Mason didn’t think plans were necessary. Make some hot chocolate, eat some Christmas cookies and watch cheesy movies—what more was there to it? But he didn’t want to let Bethany down. Since he had announced his intention to spend Christmas in the city, her countenance changed. She sported a wide smile and regained a spring in her step. Mason hadn’t seen her this happy since their college days, and it was a welcome sight. Bethany deserved to be happy, and, if spending a few days feigning the Christmas spirit did the trick, he was willing to give it a try.
Mason peeled off his T-shirt and snatched a button-down shirt from his office closet. A door creaked open as he finished dressing. Mason glanced toward the door, trying to identify his guest. Since the office closed every December, his personal assistant had the month off. It didn’t make sense to keep her working if he was relaxing on a beach. He couldn’t bring her back now.
“Interesting set up, Gregory. Are your clients expected to use the equipment in order to have a conversation?” Timothy Wells leaned on the metal frame separating the gym from his assistant’s office.
“Did we have an appointment? I’m sorry, but my assistant is on vacation.”
“I just came by to see the speech you’re delivering tomorrow. I wanted to make sure it was positive and encouraging, with zero hints at reality.” Timothy crossed his arms and leveled his gaze with Mason’s.
“Can’t do that. We had an understanding. I decide on the content, with no interference.” Mason tucked his shirt into his pants and strolled past Timothy into his assistant’s office.
“One peek, just so I know you’re on the right track. I could give you tips. I know my staff better than any. The information could be invaluable.”
Mason sighed. Timothy thrived on control. He pulled the same tricks last month when Mason delivered an inspiring speech to the top executives. Why did Mason think Timothy would relinquish this time? And why did he agree to this plan in the first place?
“This is my field of expertise. If you don’t trust me to deliver, then we can call it off. I’m not in the mood for your games.”
Timothy settled into the chair behind the desk. “You need your own desk and chairs for your clients, Mason—if you want to present yourself as a professional.”
Mason closed his eyes and clenched his fists. What did Timothy know about being a professional? Three years into acquiring his family’s company and he was ready to sell it, with no input from his father. Hiding a sale from employees and his own father was hardly professional. Was this worth double his fee? He was beginning to question his own reasoning. He marched to the office door, prepared to usher Timothy out, when Bethany appeared.
She paused in the doorway and surveyed the scene. “Is this a bad time? I can wait until you’re finished your meeting.”
Mason shook his head and opened his mouth, only to be interrupted.
“Not a bad time at all. In fact, we were finishing our meeting.” Timothy faced Mason. “Care to introduce me to this sparkling beauty?”
Mason rolled his eyes as Bethany’s face reddened. This false charisma wouldn’t fool Bethany. Mason knew she was used to men using charm to get her attention. She would brush him off like the other men she had dated. He stood with a smug look on his face, waiting for Bethany to put Timothy in his place.
But that’s not what happened. Mason huffed as he witnessed the scene. It was like watching the beginning of a chick flick. Why was Bethany giving this fake the time of day?
Bethany stifled a giggle. “I’m Bethany Rush, a friend of Mason’s.”
“Enchanted. My name is Timothy Wells.”
“Ah. The client who ruined Mason’s vacation plans. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Wells.”
Timothy cast Mason a disparaging look. “Is that how he refers to me?”
Bethany laughed. “Not exactly. But you did what I never could. You got Mason to stay in the city for Christmas. For that, I owe you.”
“Glad to be of service.” Timothy shifted his gaze between Mason and Bethany. “I find myself without a lunch date. Would you care to dine with me?”
Bethany bit her lip and glanced at Mason. “Mr. Wells, we just met. I’m supposed to have lunch with Mason.”
Timothy leaned back in the chair. “Go, talk to Mason. If he can spare you, I would love to take you to the new Italian place downtown.”
Bethany’s face brightened. “Spagios? I wanted to try it, but reservations are full for six months!”
Timothy smirked. “When you own the largest electronics company in the state, reservations are meaningless.”
“Spagios sounds delicious.” She grabbed Mason’s elbow. “I’ll be right back.”
Bethany drug Mason into his office gym and pulled the pocket door shut. “What do you know about this guy?”
“Is this because you’re interested in him or because you want to go to Spagios? I can get us in for dinner one night. I have connections.”
Bethany exhaled loudly. “I don’t get dates often. Tell me what you know.”
“I know you should be more particular about who you date.”
“So, you don’t think I should go? What’s his story? Is he married? Does he treat women badly? Is he in debt or mean to puppies?” Bethany grilled him.
“No. None of those. He isn’t the settling-down type, and I know that’s what you want. He’s selling his company so he can party and have fun. Remember how you feel about privileged wealthy people? That’s him, and that doesn’t sound like someone you would date.”
“He told you that? Well, I’m not sure I believe it. He’s polite and well dressed and seems proud of his company. That doesn’t sound like someone wanting to sell it.
Maybe you misunderstood him.”
Mason crossed his arms. “I didn’t misunderstand him. I know you better than anyone, and I don’t think this is a good match.”
Bethany pursed her lips en turned on her heels. Mason followed her back to the front office, wondering if his honesty hurt their friendship.
Timothy jolted up when they entered. “Well, are you free for lunch?”
Mason’s jaw clenched as his fists balled. Bethany was his friend and had accepted many dates before. Why did this sudden pairing bother him? He took a deep breath and leveled his gaze with hers. “If you want to, go. We can catch up this evening.”
Bethany flashed Mason a smile. “I think I will.” She turned her attention toward Timothy. “Mr. Wells, my afternoon is yours.”
Mason stared as they left the office. Bethany had a bounce to her step, something Mason wasn’t used to seeing. He thought his staying in the city for Christmas had put it there, but now he questioned that. Was it the season or was she attracted to Timothy Wells? He shook his head and gathered his belongings. Bethany was a friend, no more. If she was happy, did the reason matter?
Coming Home for Christmas
“Casey Rawlings? Well, my heavens. How are you, dear?” Nicole Mitchell bounded toward Casey and embraced her in a big hug. She looked good for her age. Her hair had no gray, probably thanks to some fabulous salon, and her face was free of wrinkles, except those around her mouth. She was constantly smiling—a truly joyous woman.
“Hello, Mrs. Mitchell. It’s so good to see you.”
Brad seemed to melt into the background as he stayed behind his father.
“I’m good, dear. It’s been a long time, but you haven’t aged a bit, Casey.”
“Aww, well, thank you, Mrs. Mitchell. I could say the same about you. You look amazing. What’s your secret?”
“Moisturizer, but enough about me. How is it being a successful lawyer? We see you in the papers sometimes.”
“Busy, mostly.” She shook Mr. Mitchell’s hand; he wasn’t a hugging type of person. “And you, Mr. Mitchell? How are you?”
“I’m good, Casey. Enjoying retirement. You know, Brad here moved to the city too?”
She glanced at Brad, but he was avoiding her gaze.
“Dad, I’m sure she doesn’t care about what I’m doing,” Brad said, only barely moving from behind his father.
“Oh no, Mr. Mitchell. I had no idea. Brad, you moved to the city? You said you hated those loud streets and smoky air.”
He shrugged, not making eye contact with her.
“Yes, he’s doing wonderful. He designs buildings for a company. They actually sought him out. You moved, what? Three years ago, Brad?”
Casey’s jaw dropped. Three years ago? They had been sharing the same location for three years, and he never looked her up? I guess he really didn’t care about me.
“Wow. Well, that’s great. You always were good at designs, Brad. I’m glad someone noticed your talent.”
“We’re so proud of him,” Mr. Mitchell beamed.
She nodded, not sure what else to say. The line had moved; she was finally next. She ordered four donuts, which the cashier packaged quickly, while she paid.
“It was good to see you, Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.” She nodded. “Brad …”
Before she could escape, Mrs. Mitchell grabbed her arm. “Casey, it was splendid to see you too, dear. We’re having Christmas dinner tomorrow. You should stop by and visit.”
“Oh, thank you for the invitation, Mrs. Mitchell, but I’m having dinner with my Mom tomorrow.”
“She can come as well. It’s been so long. We would love if you joined us. You could come by after for drinks.”
“Promise you’ll stop by? At least for this old lady?”
Casey regarded the three of them. She had missed the Mitchells. They were her family once too. Brad was ignoring her gaze, but Mrs. Mitchell was hard to deny.
“Okay, Mrs. Mitchell. I’ll stop by.”
She clapped her hands. “Wonderful, dear! We’ll see you then.”
“See you.” She sprinted from the bakery before they could rope her into anything else. How could she have dinner with his family? His family would be a refreshing change, but to spend an evening with Brad would take some courage.
Waiting by her car, Barbara was poised and ready to go.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting long, Mom. I got us some apple cider donuts.”
“Oh, those are always so good, especially warm.”
“Yes, they are. Oh, and we were invited to the Mitchells tomorrow.”
Barbara’s eyebrow raised in question.
Casey slid into the front seat, avoiding eye contact with her mom.
“There’s a story in there somewhere, so I’ll wait until you tell it.”
Casey sighed. “I ran into them by the bakery. Mrs. Mitchell made me promise. No story.”
“If you say so, sweetie.” She grabbed a donut from the bag but remained smug, as if retaining some big secret.
The drive home was silent. Casey couldn’t wait to escape to her room. Except, a boy was occupying her room. And not just any boy but her ex fiancé. A lightbulb went off—her room. She hadn’t been there in years. She needed to assure nothing embarrassing was displayed for Brad to see. She had to deal with him, but he didn’t have to know any more about her soul than he already did.
She took the stairs two at a time then entered her room. She may have aged, but her room had not. Books lined the shelves, and band posters adorned the walls. Brad’s things were settled near the bed. How strange it must be to visit this room, after all the time he had spent here.
Photos covered the vanity mirror—Casey with friends from high school and college, Casey and Brad at the fair and the two kissing. She plucked each photo featuring him off the mirror and stored them on her closet’s highest shelf.
Satisfied nothing else would betray her, she walked to the guest room. Her mom expected her downstairs for dinner at six, then she needed to answer some emails and do a little work. She hoped her mom would ignore the Mitchell situation, but her mom was about as subtle as an elephant on bubble wrap.
When it was time, she freshened up her makeup and hair then went downstairs. Barbara had made Casey’s favorite—chicken and dumplings. They would have a full meal tomorrow for Christmas, but this holiday tradition was the best. The warm chicken and dumplings always helped stave the cold outside.
“Mmm, smells good, Mom.”
“It should. It’s just the way you like it.”
They sat at the table and held hands. “I’m so happy you’re home, Casey. I miss being together. It was always the two of us against the world. I miss that.”
“I know, Mom. I do too. I won’t make it so long before I come home next time. It wasn’t fair to punish you for what others did. I see that now.”
“Well, I’m glad. You’re always welcome here.” She poured them each a glass of red wine. “Cheers.”
Dinner was perfect, like catching up with a long lost best friend. Alas, Casey had to get some work done for her firm. Things were slower for her around the holidays. She sent many of the cases to paralegals, but criminals didn’t stop breaking the law, and she was paid the big bucks to stop them.
Her emails were cluttered. There were witnesses to interview, dockets to review, statements to make. How could being out for one day result in this much? She needed another glass of wine.
She carried the glass to the couch and sipped it, wanting to savor the peace and quiet. It felt strange to drink so freely in her childhood home. She used to have to sneak alcohol, usually with Brad.
Brad. Dammit all to Hell, he had looked good today. His hair was rugged, with a nice beard, like a sexy lumberjack. His physique was sculpted, even chiseled. Time had done him well. Wait, what was she saying? She must be buzzed. He couldn’t be sexy; he had hurt her.
They may have broken up five years ago, but she hadn’t found anyone else since him. Sure, she’d had dates here and there, but nothing serious. She stayed busy, mostly, but it wasn’t the same. She had felt complete when she was with him, but then he went and ruined it all. She had been heartbroken and vowed she would leave and forget completely about him and her hometown.
One more glass later and Casey was successfully tipsy, which proved complicated when Brad walked through the door. She was sitting on the couch, hair up, wearing pajamas. She could tell by his expression he hadn’t planned on anyone else being awake when he got home.
“Hey ya, Brad.” Oh man, she needed to keep it together.
His eyebrows raised in answer. “Hi, Casey. I didn’t think anyone was still awake. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
She raised her glass of wine. “Nope, wide awake here. Wanna drink?”
He shrugged off his coat, put it on the hook and hesitated. “Sure. What are you having?”
“Some red wine, but I could see if mom had tequila, if you wanted to take shots.”
“Wine will be fine.”
She nodded and stood to start to walk but kept tripping. Why was the rug trying to ruin her time?
Suddenly, something steadied her. What was that firm, hard object holding her up?
“Here, let me get it. You have a seat. How much have you had already?”
She giggled. “A glass. Or three.”
He chuckled. “Still a light weight, I see.”
“Hey, I can hold my alcohol.”
“Sure you can.” He disappeared then returned with a glass. He sat next to her and filled his cup. He smelled like peppermint and aftershave. It was intoxicating, or was that just the wine talking? This was dangerous.
“How was dinner with your parents?”
“Good. I don’t see them much now, but it was nice to catch up.”
“They look great. It was good to see them today.”
“My mom couldn’t stop talking about seeing you. She does expect you to come tomorrow, since you promised.”
“Yeah, I know. Who’s invited to this?”
“Family, mostly. They invited some old neighbors and family friends, but it’s mostly small.”
Great … An intimate atmosphere was not what she needed.
He must have read her mind, because he said, “You’ll be fine. They’ve always loved you.”
“But you don’t.” The words flew from her mouth before she could stop them. She covered her mouth. What had she done? She hadn’t meant to say that, only think it.
“Casey, don’t.” He tensed, downed his glass and poured more.
She didn’t mean to, but, while she started it, why not? She used the liquid courage to give her strength. “Brad, I just don’t understand what happened. I never have. You proposed, and then what? Changed your mind? We were together for five years. Did that mean nothing?”
“Casey, it’s just not that easy to explain. It was a long time ago. Can’t we leave it there?”
“No, absolutely not. That’s a coward’s way out. You just don’t want to explain anything.”
“That’s not true. But we were kids, and that was five years ago. What does it matter? I’m sure you’ve found another guy by now. Focus on the present, okay?”
“That’s crap, Brad, and you know it. There isn’t another guy. Maybe you have another girl, but there hasn’t been anyone serious since you. I thought we’d be together until we died. Was that too much for you?”
“Of course not. I meant what I said when I proposed. I loved you. That’s why I proposed.”
She balled her fists and pursed her lips. “If you loved me so damn much, then why the hell did you call of the proposal not even two months later? Did you get amnesia?”
He stood, putting distance between them. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I think we should both get some sleep. Merry Christmas, Casey.”
She rolled her eyes. “Merry freakin’ Christmas, Brad.”
She stomped away and up the stairs. What an ass. It was one thing when she thought he didn’t love her or wasn’t able to commit, but he had meant every word and then rescinded.
She thought she had moved on, that it didn’t matter, but, just like it was yesterday, the pain ripped through her. She ended up crying herself to sleep.
Want to read more? Find out how these and other stories end in Christmas Magic, available on Amazon KU, ebook and paperback. And don’t forget to vote!