CHAPTER ONE

 

“Bah Humbug,” I muttered to the dancing elf on my laptop screen. I clicked the x in the corner of the pop-up ad on the Castle Rock website, and the manic sprite disappeared. Why’s he so jolly anyway? It’s not like that slave driver in the red suit gives him dental or a 401K. I sighed. Normal twenty-year-olds probably didn’t talk to computer-generated elves—well, not unless they were logged into one of those online role-playing fantasy games anyway. My boss’s ridiculous idea to host a Christmas in July music festival during one of the hottest seasons in Atlanta history had left me feeling grinchy, and here I was taking out my frustrations on the little virtual guy. Seriously, who celebrates Christmas on a summer Saturday in 104-degree weather? Bah Humbug, indeed.

 

“Hey, gorgeous,” a voice called from the break-room doorway. Reese Martin strutted in, looking irresistible as usual, with his mop of curly blond hair, handsome dimpled grin, and eyes the color of the ocean. Mmm. My boyfriend was the assistant manager of Castle Rock, the concert venue where we both worked. If I was going to have to suffer through all the heat and fake holiday cheer, at least I had some super-sweet eye candy to keep me company.

 

Reese pulled out the chair next to mine at the break-room table and took a seat. “What’s with the Scrooge impression?”

 

“Oh, you know,” I said with a little sigh. “Just updating the Castle Rock website and trying to pretend I don’t think this whole Christmas in July theme is the worst idea since Creed’s reunion tour.”

 

Reese arched a brow. “Come on, Bronwyn. Do you really think it’s that terrible?”

 

“Don’t you?” I wrinkled my nose. “It’s already scorching outside, and it’s barely noon. By the time the event starts at four, it’ll be hot enough to fry an egg on the courtyard stage.” I shook my head. “Forgive me if I’m not really feelin’ the holiday spirit.”

 

“It won’t be so bad.” Reese reached over to tuck a strand of pink hair behind my ear. “With all the tents that Derek and I set up out in the courtyard, there will be tons of shade. Plus the vendors will be selling snow cones and iced peppermint coffee with real candy cane sticks in them. And”—He reached into his back pocket and produced a small branch of green leaves with a red bow tied around it—“there’ll be plenty of chances for me to catch you under the mistletoe.” Reese dangled the little plant above his head and waggled his eyebrows at me.

 

“Oh, yeah?” I felt a mischievous smile curl my lips. Any excuse to make out with my hot boyfriend was a good one as far as I was concerned. I gave Reese my best bedroom eyes and scooted my chair closer to his.

 

“There’s my girl,” Reese said, returning my smoldering look. He patted his knee with his free hand. “Why don’t you come sit on Santa’s lap?”

 

I rolled my eyes at the cheesy line but leaned in anyway and pressed my lips firmly to his. Just as things were starting to get steamy, someone cleared their throat behind us. “Looks like you two are going on the naughty list,” Castle Rock’s owner, Kat Taylor, teased as she sidestepped past the table to reach for the coffeepot. Reese and I had been so wrapped up in each other that we hadn’t heard her enter the room. Whoops.

 

Kat poured the steaming brew into a dark blue mug with the words 'I’m sorry for what I said before I had my coffee' printed across the side. She took a few sips and then peered down into her cup, frowning. “This drink could use a little more holiday cheer,” she said, reaching into one of the cabinets for a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps. Kat drizzled some of the sweet liqueur into her mug and took another swig. “Ahh.” She exhaled and smacked her lips. “That’s better.” She perched on a chair across the table from Reese and me and took another sip of her coffee. “I hope you two are ready to work. With Amelia out of town, I need all hands on deck.”

 

Amelia Grace, Kat’s best friend and co-owner of Castle Rock, was on the road all month working as the touring manager for Royal Flush, one of the hottest rock bands of the decade. As Amelia’s assistant, I’d stepped up to fill her shoes as the venue’s booking agent, and Reese was helping cover her managerial duties. We were both feeling a little overworked and exhausted, but neither of us wanted to let Amelia and Kat down.

 

“You got it,” Reese said, flashing Kat a confident smile. He gently shifted in his seat, and I scooted my chair back to its original position. Reese glanced at his watch. “Break’s almost up anyway,” he said. “We’ll head out back in a few minutes.”

 

“Cool. Thanks, y’all.” Kat rose from her seat and deposited her empty coffee mug in the sink before turning back to me. “Bronwyn, the judges arrive at two, so I’ll need you out front to escort them in.”

 

“I’ll be ready.” I suppressed a sigh. We were hosting a Christmas-themed Battle of the Bands competition, and I was stuck catering to the needs of all of the musicians, as well as our three celebrity judges. I use the term "celebrity" loosely. We’d booked a local radio personality, a popular local music blogger and critic, and the owner of one of the city’s other rock venues.

 

“Perfect.” Kat gave Reese and me a thumbs-up and then strode down the hall, her long, light brown hair flowing in a silk sheet behind her.

 

When she was out of earshot, Reese turned in his seat and grazed my knee with his fingers. “So, where were we?” he asked, his voice growing husky.

 

I tried to ignore his look of disappointment when I brushed his hand away. “Sorry, babe. I don’t wanna start something we can’t finish.” I stood up and tugged him out of his seat. “Come on. Let’s go get this ‘deck the halls’ stuff over with.”

 

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© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017