Read Christmas Steele Online

Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal

Tags: #Romance, #Cozy Mystery

Christmas Steele

BOOK: Christmas Steele
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Copyright © 2011 by Vanessa Gray Bartal

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters,
places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual
persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely
coincidental.

Author’s Note

 

Savvy readers will notice this is book 3 in
the series when book 2 has not yet been published. The books are
written in chronological order with book 1 taking place in summer,
book 2 in fall, and book 3 at Christmas. Rest assured, however,
that no spoilers from book 2 are in this book—it’s meant simply to
be a gentle Christmas read. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!
Vanessa.

Chapter 1

 

“Lacy, a package came for you.”

Her grandmother’s polite knock, plus her
gentle voice filtering through the door, roused Lacy from a deep
sleep, which was scandalous considering the late hour. Lacy crawled
from bed and opened the door, trying hard not to look like she’d
just woken up.

“Thanks, Grandma,” she said, her voice raw
and scratchy from disuse. She extended her hand toward the small
package, trying not to feel guilty when her grandmother looked at
her in surprise. Of course there was no accusation in her beloved
grandmother’s face. Even though it was after ten in the morning,
she still wouldn’t chastise her oldest granddaughter. The woman was
a saint, in Lacy’s opinion, which made her own behavior all the
more embarrassing. Slowly but surely, she was turning into a
sloth.

It had started two weeks ago when her friend,
Tosh, became too busy for her and her friend, Jason, stopped
calling. Suddenly sitting back, enjoying life, and licking her
wounds had seemed like a good idea to Lacy. Only that had somehow
morphed into staying up until the wee hours of the morning, eating
popcorn, and watching infomercials about miracle hair products.

Her inertia had grown worse as Christmas
approached. This was her first Christmas without Robert, the first
Christmas since he’d broken their engagement and dumped her for her
sister. What was so bad about reveling in a little self pity? So
what if she hadn’t shaved her legs in over a week? Who got close
enough to her to care? No one, that’s who, at least not lately. The
only two men who had even a remote chance of getting that close to
her were both nonexistent lately.

As a pastor, Tosh was having his busiest
season, and it was making him cranky. Lacy had never seen him so
stressed. She had no idea how Christmas parties could make someone
grumpy, but then she’d never had to attend thirteen in a row.
Unlike Tosh who was doing just that and then some.

Jason’s absence was unexplained, but they
didn’t really keep tabs on each other the way she and Tosh did. Her
relationship with Jason was more complex and fraught with more
emotional minefields. She was insanely attracted to him, which was
good enough reason to stay away from him, only that didn’t seem to
be possible. They were like two magnets that kept flipping back and
forth, alternately attracting and repelling each other. Apparently
lately their poles were the same and they were keeping their
distance. Lacy tried to tell herself it didn’t matter, but she
still felt the sting of his rejection, even if it was unspoken.

She sat on the floor in front of her bed,
turning over the package in her hand. It was a plain cardboard box,
but something rattled inside. When she tore open the outside
packaging, she saw a neatly wrapped little present with an attached
note that read, “Do not open until Christmas.”

“Pfft,” Lacy said out loud. “Fat chance.” She
ripped open the smaller box and stared dumbfounded at its contents,
blinking the sleep from her eyes to see it better. It was a
beautiful gold filigree locket. Turning it over, she read the
inscription on the back. “I love you.”

Amazed, she sat on the floor, staring at it
and turning it over in her fingers, looking for clues. Who would
have sent this and why now? Why not give it to her in person,
unless it was someone who couldn’t say the words out loud?

That tantalizing thought left three
possibilities: Either it was Tosh, whose desire to take things to
the next level wasn’t actually a secret. Or it was Jason, who would
probably rather be dropped into boiling acid rather than ever tell
a woman he loved her. And then there was the third option: Lacy’s
grandfather, Tom Middleton. New to their family and still finding
his way, it would be like him to send a sentimental gift without
actually telling her anything at all. He was her biological
grandfather, but she hadn’t known about him until recently. They
were a lot alike, she and her grandfather; sentimental words didn’t
come easily.

Only one other man had ever given Lacy
jewelry, and she was certain this wasn’t from him. Her ex-fiancé,
Robert, had given her an engagement ring, but before that he had
given her something else, something more meaningful, something she
had kept despite their breakup.

On the day he told her he was dumping her for
her sister, Riley, she had ripped off her engagement ring, shoved
it into his chest, and told him she never wanted to see him again.
Then she had gone back to her apartment, rifled through her jewelry
box, and dug out the other piece of jewelry he’d given her, hugging
it tightly to her chest.

Setting aside the locket, she stood and
walked to her drawer, rifling through until she reached the small
box filled with the personal items she kept hidden from the world.
In it was a card from Tosh, something he’d sent because he knew it
would make her laugh, along with a clipped picture of Jason in his
uniform she had cut from the paper. There was the bulletin from
Barbara Blake’s funeral service, and there was the ring from
Robert.

It wasn’t valuable, at least in terms of
dollars. He had bought it from a street vendor in Manhattan on a
whim, but he had presented it to her with a flourish, telling her
he loved her and getting down on one knee. They had only been
dating for a couple of months, and Lacy had been swept away by the
romance of it all. She had worn the ring every day until he
replaced it with an engagement ring.

She pulled the ring out now, studying it for
a few beats before clenching it in her hand and pressing her closed
fist to her forehead. How could she have been so wrong about
Robert? How could she have been so stupid to turn over her heart to
someone who had hurt her so cruelly? How could she ever fully trust
anyone again?

Unclenching her fist, she dropped the ring
back in the box and closed the drawer. She had to get a grip on
herself. Somehow, she had to get out of this downward spiral, and
especially before Christmas arrived. Christmas was a notoriously
depressing day for the lovelorn. No need to add more fuel to the
fire by letting herself go and adding low self-esteem into the
mix.

First thing first, she needed to get herself
whipped back into shape. The best way to do that was to go for a
run, but she groaned aloud just thinking the word. If there was
anything she hated more than running, it was running when it was
cold and wet outside. But this was her penance for eating four bags
of microwave popcorn in the last week. They were the mini bags, but
still. Gross.

She suited up, attempting to pile on the
layers without adding so many that she would overheat and die along
the road somewhere. How to dress for a run was the type of thing
that athletic people inherently knew. Lacy, on the other hand, was
not athletic. She was and had always been a geek. Her days of high
school band had taught her which instruments couldn’t survive the
cold or the wet, but nothing about football. The game was still a
mystery to her, as was running for pleasure. She ran because, if
she didn’t, she would get fat.

With that depressing thought in mind, she
left the house and pounded the pavement for thirty minutes,
alternately sweating and freezing as she vowed to figure out the
proper mix of clothes for a winter run. Her ears, nose, fingers,
and toes were numb, but her midsection was soaked with great
rivulets of sweat. For that reason, she couldn’t stop until she got
home for fear that she would freeze wherever she landed. What if
she accidentally backed up against a metal pole or something? The
fire department might have to get her unstuck.

She finally arrived home, stumbling in the
front door and collapsing on the entry rug.

“What on earth was that?” her grandmother’s
voice drifted from the kitchen.

“Lacy went for a run,” her grandfather
replied.

“Oh,” her grandma said, as if the sound of
collapse had been inevitable the moment Lacy set out. “Lacy, dear,
are you okay? We’re getting ready to bake soon. We waited for
you.”

Lacy tried to call that she was fine, but the
sound came out a garbled mass of unintelligible sounds. When she
realized she was actually slobbering on the rug, drool running from
one side of her face like a sleeping Saint Bernard, she pulled
herself up on her hands and knees and shakily attained a standing
position.

“Shower,” she called weakly in the direction
of the kitchen. She wasn’t sure if they heard her pathetic whimper,
but they must have because they once again told her they would wait
for her.

When it took two razors to finally eradicate
the thick growth of stubble on her legs, Lacy was properly
disgusted with herself. How had she sunk so low in just two weeks?
Just because Tosh and Jason were too busy to pay attention to her
didn’t mean she shouldn’t pay attention to herself.
Never
again,
she vowed as she did a deep conditioning treatment on
her hair and applied an in-shower face mask. Had she been brushing
her teeth before she crawled into bed at night? She couldn’t
remember, and she shuddered at the thought that maybe she hadn’t.
She was seriously done with the self-pity routine. No matter what,
she would find a distraction for herself before she sank again.

Chapter 2

 

Luckily when she exited her bedroom, her
grandparents had just such a distraction waiting for her.

“Grandma, are you sure you bought enough
butter?” Lacy asked as she surveyed the counter.

“Oh, I don’t know,” her grandmother said, her
tone uncertain.

“I’m teasing you,” Lacy said, giving her
grandma’s shoulders a bracing squeeze. “I think eight pounds is
plenty.”

“I just want everything to be perfect,”
Lucinda said. “This is your mother’s first time meeting Tom since
he and I became, ah, friends, I want her to approve of him. Even
more so because he’s her father. But you know your mother. She’s a
bit…”

“Crazy?” Lacy supplied.

“Lacy,” her grandfather said
disapprovingly.

“You haven’t spent much time with her,” Lacy
said. “You’ll see. Back me up here, Grandma.”

“I was going to say high strung,” her
grandmother said. “But crazy works pretty well, too.”

Lacy laughed. “Grandma!” It was the first
time she had ever heard her grandmother say something even remotely
bad about anyone, and her own daughter, no less.

“Don’t tell her I said that,” Lucinda said,
laughing. “It’s just that Frannie and I are very different people.
I love her more than anything on this earth, but sometimes she can
be a bit difficult.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, Grandma,”
Lacy said. Her mother was one of the reasons Lacy had learned to
live in her head, preferring to make up stories instead of
listening to her mother’s latest histrionic diatribe. “That’s why
she and Riley get along; two peas in a pod.”

“I hope we can all get along during this
visit,” her grandfather interjected, clearly disturbed by the
conversation.

“I do, too, and I’m sure we will,” Lacy said
with more confidence than she felt. This was his first Christmas
spent with his daughter, even though she didn’t know she was his
daughter. Her grandparents had decided not to tell their daughter
that she was adopted, preferring not to dislodge her carefully
planned world. Lacy felt a little nervous, too. She had never kept
such a monumental secret from anyone before, and certainly not her
own mother. How was she supposed to deal with the fact that she
knew her parent was adopted when her mother didn’t? She still
hadn’t told her parents about the inheritance from Barbara Blake
because it would raise too many questions, questions she had no
answer to.

The one bright spot in the family visit, at
least for Lacy, was that her little sister, Riley, wasn’t coming.
Lacy didn’t delude herself into thinking Riley had suddenly
developed a conscience and didn’t want to hurt Lacy with her
presence. No, she knew the reason Riley wasn’t coming home was
because she’d received a better offer, a fact confirmed when Lacy
learned Riley and Robert had been invited to spend Christmas in the
Hamptons with Robert’s rich aunt.

BOOK: Christmas Steele
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