I love the movie “You’ve Got Mail” where rich megastore owner Tom Hanks secretly woos struggling small bookshop owner Meg Ryan. If you love it too, then check out the excerpt below from my story Mr. December from my Trilogy Collection NICE & NAUGHTY. Grab something soothing to drink, curl up in your favorite reading spot and escape from the holiday madness for at least a couple of moments. Enjoy! Cat
“MR. DECEMBER” from NICE & NAUGHTY
Chapter One Excerpt
Jason Bryant knew two things with absolute certainty. First, working in retail during the holiday season was absolute insanity and second, he wouldn’t want it any other way. Although glancing around the already frazzled faces of his store employees, he had to wonder if he was the only one who felt that way.
Sheesh. It was only the day after Thanksgiving and they all already looked like they’d been to war and back. He’d seen happier faces in photos taken during the Great Depression.
Meanwhile, Jason couldn’t be happier as the post-holiday sale adrenaline rush surged through his body. Black Friday, the day retail institutions went from running in the red to the black often with the highest one-day intake of the year. Just the phrase took his breath away.
He rubbed his hands together and then checked his watch. Six-thirty. He clapped his hands to get the attention of the large group assembled in the break room. “People. We open in half an hour.”
There was a collective groan over the extra early opening and the extended holiday hours. He decided to continue his inspirational speech undaunted, hoping his personal contribution of fresh hot coffee and donuts would help to boost morale.
“Come on. You know the song. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Smile. We love our customers and we want them to love us. Get some coffee, meditate, do whatever you have to, but get yourselves merry by the time those doors open in thirty minutes.”
It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Hell, it wasn’t even the win one for the Gipper speech from that old Ronald Reagan movie, but it would have to do.
Employees shuffled at a zombie-like pace toward the coffee as Jason considered getting an inspirational sign to hang above the door of the break room. Something like the sign that hung in the locker room at Notre Dame to inspire the football team before a game. Something to consider. He’d add it to the already lengthy list of things to do currently entered in his smartphone.
It was hard for Jason to even imagine that the seemingly living dead who were his employees didn’t share his holiday excitement. Admittedly, he may have different feelings about the day after Thanksgiving than the others in the room. He was sure all they could think about was the leftover turkey waiting in their fridge and the football games they were missing on television. While all Jason could think about was the energy that positively radiated from this old building at Christmas, until the bricks and mortar seemed to possess a life force all their own.
Bryant’s Department Store was like a gracious lady bedecked in her gayest finery during the holiday season, and every tourist and local came to admire her. Jason had loved Bryant’s at holiday time ever since his Grandpa Bryant first brought him here to sit in Santa’s lap. That was before Jason had even learned to walk. Since his grandfather’s retirement, the store was now Jason’s ship to steer, and he intended on navigating the staid local institution into an even brighter future.
Jason bounced on his toes, as if a giant ball of energy trapped in his body was trying to get out. If only he could send some of his vigor the way of those around him. He was considering some options when his assistant came up and tapped him on the shoulder.
He smiled at the older woman. “Peggy. You look festive.”
She did, dressed in a dark green pantsuit with a red berry pin. He recognized both items as being store stock and smiled. Peggy was a loyal store employee, he’d wager right down to her Bryant’s private label underwear.
Peggy, who had assisted his grandfather for over twenty years and now belonged to him, raised one painted-on eyebrow. “We’ll see how festive you feel after I tell you what’s happening.”
Jason frowned. Whatever it was, he was not going to let it ruin his first Black Friday at Bryant’s helm. He hadn’t worked his way up from stockroom clerk, to floor associate, to manager, to Chief Operating Officer to let anything get in his way now. He gripped Peggy with one hand on each of her bony shoulders and stared deeply into her eyes. “What is it, Peggy?”
She released a loud cackle. “Well, Jesus. It isn’t that bad. No one’s dead. I just got a call from the Santa who’s supposed to be here today.”
Jason nodded. “Mmm, hmm. One of the local firemen promoting the charity calendar.” There was a stack of calendars for sale at every register in the store.
“Yup. Mr. December, Troy O’Donnell, Ladder Company No. 3. Six feet tall and two hundred pounds of solid muscle, from what I can see.”
“Yes, Peggy. I get it. What about Mr. O’Donnell?”
“He ain’t coming. His girlfriend or somebody called.” Peggy waved a dismissive hand, seeming far less interested in Mr. O’Donnell’s dating status than she was in his physical attributes. “She said he’s been throwing up for hours. They’re not sure if it’s the full-blown flu or just a little stomach bug, but he was apparently up and getting dressed between bouts of vomiting. He was trying to come here for his shift when she called me so I could tell him myself, officially, that he should stay the hell home.”
He agreed, but hoped Peggy hadn’t actually used the phrase stay the hell home. “Of course he should stay home. It wouldn’t do to have Santa vomiting on the children, or spreading a stomach virus to our customers and staff.”
“That’s what I told him. But now what do we do about getting a Santa last minute?”
“Have you called the firehouse to see if they have a spare?”
Peggy laughed at that. “Have you seen those firemen in that calendar? If they do have a spare, they can send him over to my house.”
Yes, Jason had seen the nearly nude fireman calendar, all twelve months of it. Aside from selling it at his store, Peggy had it hanging in her office for almost a month now even though it didn’t officially start until January of next year. The item seemed to be very popular with the ladies. Apparently from her rundown on Mr. December, Peggy had memorized all of the hunky firemen’s stats already.
He rolled his eyes and had to smile. Peggy was seventy if she was a day.
“Stop rolling your eyes at me. I’m old. I’m not dead. And yeah, I called. They got nobody for us today. All of their fireman Santas are either on duty at the firehouse or spoken for elsewhere. They got them playing Claus all over town, you know, not just here. The children’s hospital, the library. They said they might be able to swing somebody for tomorrow if he’s still not better.”
Jason pursed his lips as an idea struck him. He’d often wanted to be a fly on the wall in the store, see what his employees were up to when he wasn’t around, hear unsolicited comments from customers. But his face was too well known in the store. This little misfortune could turn out to be a perfect opportunity.
“Peggy. We’ve got the Santa suit here, correct?”
“Yup. Up in my office. Just got it out of the dry cleaners.”
“Excellent. I’ll arrange for a Santa. Oh, and I’ll be out of touch for the day, so if anyone calls for me, just take a message.”
Peggy cocked an already sharply arching black brow at him. “What are you up to?”
He winked at her and held one finger up to his lips to indicate she should keep quiet.
She shook her head. “You’ve got the devil in you, just like your grandpa.”
Jason smiled and laid an arm around her shoulders, steering them both out the door of the break room. “And you’ve worked for us both, for over twenty years now. So what does that say about you, my dear Peggy?”
She let out a loud crackling laugh. “It says that I know I’ll have a lot more fun working for a devil than a saint, that’s what. Come on. I may have to find more padding for the suit. You’re in better shape than last year’s guy.”
He grinned at her. She knew him too well, the mark of a great assistant.
Santa Claus for a day, this was an unexpected treat. He was feeling jollier by the minute. He may not be a hunky fireman calendar model, but in the world of retail, Jason considered himself to be Mr. December. Maybe he should print his own calendar. Hunky men of retail…something for the list.
Five hours and what felt like countless hundreds of children later, Jason was reconsidering his initial opinion about the merits of the Santa Claus business. He experienced a veritable rainbow of behaviors when it came to the children, with the emphasis on naughty rather than nice. A few skeptics pulled his beard, others ran screaming in fear, and some were struck speechless in the overwhelming presence of the great Mr. Claus. There were the criers, the pants-wetters, the whiners and the demanders. Children who didn’t know what they wanted, children who wanted everything, and parents who had waited on one line too many and were ready to take it out on anyone, Old Saint Nick being no exception.
If his little walk on the jolly side served any purpose, it was to help him understand the haggard looks on the faces of his employees. And as for wanting to be a fly on the wall and listen to unsolicited comments about the store, he must remember in future to be careful what he wished for. Apparently, according to the mothers in line, Bryant’s prices were too high and the clothing too, in the words of one customer, farty. How in the world was he going to convey that comment tactfully to the buyers?
The end result was that Jason used his entire whopping fifteen-minute break entering notes and ideas for improvements into his cell phone’s organizer application. Things like more cash registers, reserved time slots for seeing Santa and fashions that were…what exactly was the opposite of farty? Hip. Stylish. Phat? He’d have to ask one of the younger female sales associates for a term relevant to today’s buyer.
Jason sighed. He was only in his thirties himself, but he was a man, not a woman. He kept up with retail trends. Hell, they had the best clothing money could buy in the men’s department. He’d thought he had his finger on the pulse of the buying public, but apparently, he was falling short in women’s fashions.
He had already taken the step to lure in younger female buyers by allowing the firemen from the charity calendar to play Santa at Bryant’s for the week after Thanksgiving this year, as well as agreeing to host their charity bachelor auction and cocktail party at the store. Jason was on the board of directors of the local children’s hospital and since the proceeds from the sales of the firemen calendar were going directly to the hospital, of course Bryant’s would help promote it. And if events like the auction attracted a younger female consumer into Bryant’s, it was a win-win situation for all.
But it appeared that simply luring a younger customer base into the store wasn’t the problem. Having something they’d be interested in purchasing, besides the hunky firemen, was. Jason would have to get out, shop the competition and see what was hot or Bryant’s was a grand old lady doomed and on the brink of extinction.
Feeling rather less than jolly, Jason took his seat—actually, his golden red velvet throne—for the afternoon round of precious little ones. The coffee he’d consumed during his break hadn’t helped revive him any, and he felt embarrassed for offering it up as inspiration to his employees that morning as if it was a cure all. Perhaps a bottle of Irish Whisky would work better. No, he could never actually do that, but at the moment, it was a tempting thought.
Then something more tempting stepped into view and Jason nearly pulled off his white wig and fake spectacles to make sure he was seeing correctly. Perhaps he was delirious because she cut the line of kiddies still being held back behind the “Feeding the Reindeer—back in 15 minutes” sign and perched her shapely behind right on his knee.
“Don’t you look cute. Can I tell you what I want for Christmas?” She treated him to a gorgeous smile, followed by an immediate frown as she hopped off his lap. “Oh my God. You’re not Troy.”
No, he wasn’t, but right then, Jason sure wished he were. He did manage to shake his head to indicate to the woman that indeed, no, he was not Troy.
“I apologize. I must have gotten my signals crossed. I thought Troy O’Donnell was supposed to be here today.”
He finally found his voice. “No apology necessary. Your friend,” at least he certainly hoped they were only friends and nothing more, “was supposed to be here today, but he’s ill.”
She frowned. “Oh. I’ll have to call him. But, I sat in your lap. I’ve gotten friendlier with you than I did with my last date. I’m so sorry.” She cringed and covered her reddened face with her hands.
He stored away that information about her unfriendly last date for later use. “No apology needed for that either. Compared to what I’ve endured today, it was my pleasure.” Jason smiled. His pleasure, indeed. He took in the tall strawberry blond and her bottomless blue eyes.
The woman of his future dreams stuck a hand out. “I’m Troy’s sister, Tessa O’Donnell. I don’t recognize you from the fireman calendar. I was the photographer. Are you from the firehouse?”
He shook her warm hand and pondered his answer. “Um, no. The store brought me in last minute.” There, that wasn’t exactly a lie.
She smiled and shook her head. “I still can’t believe stuffy old Bryant’s is holding the Hunky Firemen Bachelor Auction here.”
Hmm. Farty and now stuffy too. Jason stifled a sigh. Instead, he opted for damage control. “I actually heard that the new COO is trying for a younger image for Bryant’s.”
Tessa screwed up her face. “The new COO is still a Bryant, isn’t he? Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a maid, nanny, butler, chauffeur and chef up his butt from the day he was born. I wish him luck, but I don’t think there’s any hope of changing Bryant’s image after all these years. Particularly for a man who has no clue what life is like in the real world.”
Jason swallowed. She’d forgotten the private tutor and the gardeners that came with his upbringing, and also that he’d moved out of the house—all right, mansion—the moment he was old enough to escape that life and prove to himself and his family he could make it in the real world. But he had been born a Bryant and was now in charge of Bryant’s. That would represent nepotism at its best in Tessa’s eyes. Forget he had worked his way up from the bottom to get where he was today. He was still his grandfather’s heir and always would be.
She glanced over her shoulder at the growing line of irate mothers and irritated children that he’d been trying, and failing, to ignore as he concentrated on her. “Looks like the crowd is getting restless, so I better get to business before they rebel. I’m actually the photographer for the auction too, so I came by to check out the site. I’m taking press shots for PR. They promised us coverage in the local paper.” She frowned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“It’s Ja…um, Jay Bee.” Jason nearly groaned. He’d never been a good liar, particularly not on the fly.
She smiled and repeated, “JB, nice to meet you. You better get back to work before the big boss fires you.”