Single mom Lexie Bell hopes to make this first Christmas in their new home special for her six-year-old son, Brock. Festive lights and homemade fudge, check. Friendly neighbors? Uh, no. The reclusive widower next door is more grinchy than nice. But maybe he just needs a reminder of what matters most. At least sharing some holiday cheer with him will distract her from her own lack of romance…
Stanley Mann lost his Christmas spirit when he lost his wife and he sees no point in looking for it. Until she shows up in his dreams and informs him it’s time to ditch his scroogey attitude. Stanley digs in his heels, but she’s determined to haunt him until he wakes up and rediscovers the joys of the season. He can start by being a little more neighborly to the single mom next door. In spite of his protests, he’s soon making snowmen and decorating Christmas trees. How will it all end?
Merrily, of course. A certain Christmas ghost is going to make sure of that!
A LITTLE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
By Sheila Roberts
MIRA Books September 28, 2021
Lexie Bell awoke on Black Friday before her six-year old son and went downstairs to the kitchen, where she pulled out the leftover pumpkin pie she’d brought home from the so-called Orphans Thanksgiving dinner she’d attended.
She didn’t know very many people in the town of Fairwood yet, and she’d appreciated the invite from one of the older teachers at Fairwood Elementary, who had wanted to make sure everyone, especially a newcomer like Lexie, had a place to go. She’d met some nice people at that party and it gave her hope that she’d find her tribe and be able to settle into her new town as well as she was settling into her new job. She’d already made one good friend, Shannon, another single teacher at school, and she was looking forward to adding more.
As for settling into the job, that had been easy. What was not to like about being a kindergarten teacher? She enjoyed working with children, especially the little ones. She looked forward to going to work every day and seeing all those smiling, innocent faces, looking up at her every day, eager to learn.
And she was always eager to teach. She loved children, would have liked to have more than one herself. But so far one was all that was in the cards. She’d just discovered she was pregnant when her fiancé confessed that he’d been cheating. She’d ended things right then and there, and there had gone the plans for the big, destination wedding they’d been saving for, not to mention the big, happy family she’d dreamed of having.
“That’s what comes of putting the cart before the horse,” her grandma had said.
Thankfully, she only said it once. The last thing Lexie wanted Brock hearing about was horses and carts and how foolish his mother had been and what a loser the man she’s fallen for had turned out to be. She supposed there would come a time when she’d have to address that but not yet.
The cheater had signed over his parental rights and moved to San Diego, so it had always been just Lexie and Brock. A sweeter, more precocious boy you would never find, and while she may have made a mistake in the man she picked she didn’t regret the child she’d gotten out of the deal.
She wished her grandma was still alive so she could see what a great kid Brock was. She hoped Granny would be proud of how Lexie was raising her son. She felt she was doing okay. They both were.
She cut the big slice of pie in two, leaving the slightly smaller half for Brock, then squirted a pile of canned whipped cream on top. Nourishment for the quest that lay ahead: shopping Black Friday specials online for the perfect presents for her aunt and uncle and cousins back in California, and her mom and, of course, Brock.
She loved holiday sales. They were the only time she could actually afford all the expensive gifts that were usually out of reach for a single mom on a teacher’s salary. She settled on the couch with her pie on the coffee table and her laptop in her lap, started some Taylor Swift playing, cracked her knuckles, limbering up. Then she brought her computer to life. Let the adventure begin.
She’d already purchased a plane ticket for her mom so she could fly up from sunny California and join them for the holidays, but Lexie wanted something to put under the tree as well.
What to get? Perfume? No. Mom would say, “Your father’s gone. What’s the point?”
It was what she said about everything, from getting her nails done to whipping up the gourmet meals she used to love cooking. For years Lexi had gotten her a can of tennis balls as a stocking stuffer because Mom loved to play tennis, but that wasn’t an option. She’d stopped playing. She’d also given up her book club, claiming that since Daddy’s death it was hard to concentrate on the words on the page, so there was no point in getting her a book. Something for the house? Her mother had enough stuff.
Chocolate! Even the most miserable of women could be helped by chocolate. Lexi knew that from experience.
She ordered a box of Godiva truffles.
She found a deal on body butter and ordered some for the cousins, then started the search for the perfect present for her aunt.
“I’m awake, Mommy.”
She looked up to see her son entering the living room, looking adorable in his superhero pj’s. His brown curls (a gift from the father fail) were tousled, and he rubbed his eyes (brown, also from the father fail) as he joined her on the couch, snuggling up next to her.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I’m checking out the sales. I have to get my holiday shopping done.”
“And we have to see Santa,” Brock reminded her.
“Don’t worry. We have plenty of time to see Santa,” she assured him.
“Does he know I want a puppy?”
“I think he does, but I think he also knows that Mommy said no puppy yet. You have to wait until you’re older.”
Brock’s lips dipped downward. “I just want a puppy.”
“You’ll get one eventually, but not this Christmas. Start thinking about something else to ask Santa for.”
The lower lip jutted out.
“Oh, my, what a sad, pitiful mouth,” she teased. She leaned over and picked up her pie from the coffee table. “I think it needs something to make it happy,” she said, forking off a bite.
Brock squirmed in delight and opened his mouth.
“There. Did that make your mouth happier?” she asked once it was in.
He nodded, chewed and swallowed. “My mouth wants some more.”
“It’s a good thing I have a piece saved for you in the refrigerator, then. Want to go get it?”
He nodded again, this time even more eagerly, and followed her to the kitchen.
Not the most nutritious breakfast in the world, she thought as she dished it up. But not the worst either. After all, it did have pumpkin and eggs. Anyway, it was Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone deserved to party a little on a holiday weekend.
She’d hoped to find some people to party with right here in her cul-de-sac when she’d first moved in. She’d fallen in love with the house, with its simple lines and big front porch, and had assumed that there’d be another family living in one of the neighboring houses.
But she hadn’t found a family when she moved in. Instead, she’d found workaholics who were rarely around and a divorcing couple whose quarrels she’d heard clear over on her front porch. They’d soon moved out and taken their sulky teenager with them, leaving the house standing empty. The Sold sign now posted in the front yard gave her hope, but it was about her only hope. The little old lady who occupied the house two doors down didn’t come out much, and there was a reclusive older couple next door.
At least she assumed it was a couple. So far she’d only seen the husband, and he wasn’t inclined to chat.
Once, she’d caught sight of him driving toward his house when she was outside, raking the leaves from the big maple tree in her front yard—a hefty man with thinning gray hair and bushy eyebrows. She’d given him a friendly wave and a smile, and he’d nodded and managed to lift his fingers off the steering wheel, then he’d turned into his garage, and it had swallowed him up. She’d seen him one other time and gotten the same half-hearted acknowledgement. She’d taken over some cookies once when she’d thought she caught sight of someone in their dining- room window, but the only welcome she’d gotten had been from a couple of garden gnomes sitting on the front porch. When no one had answered the door, she’d wound up leaving them on the doorstep.
Did he have a wife? If he did she had to be bedridden or as reclusive as him. It was like living next door to Boo Radley.
Well, she’d find her peeps. She was working that direction with Mrs. Davidson of the Orphans Thanksgiving dinner and Shannon, who was also nearing the big three-oh and who taught fourth grade. Her social life would sort itself out. Maybe, if she was lucky, her love life would also.
She settled Brock at the kitchen counter with his pie, promising him a trip to town for hamburgers for lunch—let the fun continue—then returned to her computer. There was a lot of Black Friday left, and she had shopping to do.
Stanley sat down at his computer to check the stock market and then his email. Not many emails came for him anymore. Still, out of habit, he checked. The inbox was filled with Black Friday offers. Fifty percent off this. Get that now before it’s gone. BOGO. Enter this coupon code.
He deleted them all. No need for shopping bargains when he wasn’t going to shop. That had been Carol’s department, not his. She’d spent a fortune on her sister’s family and all her girlfriends, buying stuff that would probably end up in a garage sale or a landfill.
“It’s a way to show people you care,” she’d tell him.
She had a point there. He still fondly remembered the year she’d gotten him a slick, new bowling ball. She’d wrapped it and put it inside a huge packing crate with a bow on it so he couldn’t guess what it was.
“Do you like it?” she’d asked when he took it out of its box.
He had, and more than the gift itself, he’d liked that loving expression on her face.
Even though he never bought gifts for anyone else, he’d always gotten something nice for her: bubble bath, chocolates, jewelry. One year he’d bought season tickets to the local theater because the season included several musicals. Carol loved musicals. (Stopping in the middle of what you’re doing to sing a song never made sense to him. But then he’d been an electrician, not a poet, so what did he know?)
There was no one he needed to lavish presents on now, no one he needed to show that he cared. “Waste of time and money,” he muttered.
People shouldn’t waste so much time buying crap. When you weren’t wandering in and out of stores, you had more time for other things.
Stanley gave his nose a scratch. Other things. Like checking the stock market, doing your Sudoku puzzle … He scratched his nose again. Watching TV. Yeah, he had a busy life.
But don’t forget keeping the house maintained, emptying the garbage.
Shaking his fist at heaven.
How he’d looked forward to retiring and enjoying himself, spending more time with Carol, doing things together. There was no together. Only the solitary doing of routine.
He sighed and turned off the computer. It was almost time for lunch. A slice of toast with some peanut butter. A glass of milk. A couple of cookies. Hardly gourmet fare, but who cared? He’d never been much of a cook. He wasn’t going to start now.
After his busy day of Sudoku and TV, he made dinner. This time a ham sandwich. No more spicy food before bed. He topped his meal off with some more ice cream and called it good.
Now, what to watch on TV tonight? He flipped it on and checked his options. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Home Movies.
Home Movies! He didn’t have a Home Movies option, and he’d never seen that old-fashioned movie projector icon before. He blinked and leaned forward, squinting at the TV screen. There were his options. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon.
Okay, take a deep breath. That was just a weird…something.
He went to Netflix and opted for one of his favorite police series. There you go. Cops called to a murder scene, people standing behind the yellow tape, gawking. There, toward the back of the crowd was… He let out a yelp and pushed back against his recliner. It was Carol, middle-aged and with that short haircut he’d told her he liked even though he hadn’t. She waved at him.
Oh, man. What was wrong with him? He took a deep breath, leaned forward and stared at the screen. She was gone. He kept looking for her throughout the rest of the show, but she never returned.
Both frustrated and unnerved, he shut off the TV and opted for a book. That would do him just fine.
He read until he was sleepy, then went to bed, torn between hoping Carol would make another appearance and dreading another scold. Being nagged from beyond the grave was unsettling.
She did return late that night, and where her first visit had been unsettling, this one was downright scary. She wasn’t cute like she’d been the night before. The nightie was gone, and she was in jeans and a red sweater, topping off the outfit with a Santa hat.
That part was okay, but the face under the Santa hat was a different story. Her pretty blue eyes replaced with what looked like red hot coals. !
He bolted upright, his heart pounding. “Carol?” he whimpered, pulling the covers up to his chin like a shield.
Some shield. What he needed to do was dive under the bed.
“Don’t be silly. I’d find you there,” she said, reading his mind. “I wanted to watch home movies, Stanley. Obviously, you didn’t get the message. I don’t think you’re taking me seriously.”
“I am,” he whispered, averting his gaze.
Averting didn’t work. She whooshed right in his face, forcing him back against the headboard. “I heard what you said about not shopping.”
He squeezed his eyes shut tightly. “That was your thing, not mine.” Arguing. He was arguing with a ghost. What was he thinking?
“All right, I’ll give you that. But you’re going to have to find some way to get involved with life. Take an interest. There are people all around who need you.”
“Nobody needs me,” he grumbled. Not anymore, not with her gone.
“That’s not true. There are always people who need you. Open your eyes, and you’ll see them.”
He didn’t want to open his eyes. He might see her.
“If you’d watched those movies like I wanted, you’d have realized how good life is when you’re out there doing things.”
He’d gotten all their home movies digitized, and they’d barely made a dent in watching them before she was gone. “There’s no point, because I was doing things with you. Life’s not good now, and watching them will just piss me off.”
“Stanley, stop feeling so sorry for yourself. Start looking out and focusing on others instead of in and only on yourself. It’s the season of peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Get out there and show some goodwill. And, while you’re at it, decorate this place. It’s so…un-Christmassy.”
Decorate? “Oh come on, that was your thing, too,” he protested, eyes still squeezed shut.
“Not hanging lights. That was always your job.”
“There’s no reason to hang the lights. You’re not here to appreciate them.”
“I’m here now.”
He cracked one eye open, only to see those fiery eyes boring into him. Yes, she was.
“I know,” he said, “and, no offense, but you don’t look so good, babe,” he added and shut that eyelid back down.
“It’s because I’m not happy. You’re killing me, Manly Stanley.”
It would probably come across as callous to point out that she was already dead.
“You’d better start taking me seriously.”
“I always took you seriously.”
“Then, get with the program. I’m going to haunt you till you do.”
“Please, no. Don’t do that,” he begged. “I can’t handle seeing you like this.” Those glowing eyes really were creepy.
“Then, I suggest you start thinking about making me happy.”
“I will, I will,” he promised.
“Good. I’ll be watching,” she said and left in swirl of cold wind.
Stanley’s eyes popped open, and he saw his covers had fallen off. No wonder he’d felt a breeze. It was his subconscious telling him he was cold, that was all. Like those times he’d dream he was looking for a bathroom and would wake up to realize he needed to take a whiz.
But why was he seeing Carol? Why was she choosing now, of all times, to haunt his subconscious?
Because she’d loved Christmas, of course. That was it. That was all.
He could swear he smelled peppermint again. Was there such a thing as olfactory hallucination? That had to be what he was suffering from. Had to be.
He abandoned the idea of trying to go back to sleep. It was four thirty in the morning. He’d conked out around eleven. Five and a half hours was enough. Anyway, he’d rather walk around gritty-eyed than take a chance on meeting Burning Coals Carol again.
He showered, he shaved. He got dressed. Proof that he was, indeed, taking an interest in life.
“That ought to make her happy,” he muttered.
Make her happy. He’d have liked nothing better. If she was still alive. But she wasn’t. And he was laying off the ice cream. Ice cream was the culprit.
Or else he was going insane.
No, that couldn’t be. Surely if he were going to lose his mind he’d have done so long before this. Of course, it was never too late to go around the bend.
He drank his morning coffee and ate a bowl of cereal. Then he watched the morning news and went online and checked the stock market. His stocks were still holding strong. All was well. Not that his stocks mattered much these days. He had what he needed to live on stashed away in a retirement account that was intended for two, and no one to leave any money to. Still, it was good to have something to check.
Come ten o’clock, he fetched his coat and hat and gloves and went to the garage. Time to take the SUV to the shop and have snow tires put on. There was no snow in the forecast yet, maybe wouldn’t be any at all this winter, but Stanley liked to be prepared.
Stanley also liked to be organized, which was why he always kept the garage immaculate—a sheet of cardboard under the SUV to catch oil drips, his tools neatly hung on a peg board or stored under his work bench, bins of seasonal decorations that he’d hauled in every year for Carol belonged on the shelves.
But now one was sitting in the middle of the floor, tipped sideways.
The author of more than 50 books, Roberts is best known for her holiday stories, women’s fiction and romance novels in small-town settings. Her On Strike for Christmas was a Lifetime Network movie, and her The Nine Lives of Christmas is a perennial Hallmark channel movie favorite. Before she launched her author career, she played in a band and owned a singing telegram company. She divides her time between two homes in Washington and a beachside retreat in southern California and writes at all three.
Do you enjoy Christmas stories?
How early do you begin reading them?
Two randomly chosen people posting a comment before 11:00 PM, September 9 will each receive a print ARC (advance review copy) of A Little Christmas Spirit. My thanks to Sheila Roberts for the giveaway.
*U.S. / Canada only
*Must be 18
*Void where prohibited
Birthday Giveaway #8
One randomly chosen person who posts a comment before 11:00 PM, September 9 will receive a book from my conference stash.
*Must be 18
*Void where prohibited