What is the ultimate gift?
Cool off with a frosty New Year’s Eve Chapter One excerpt from The Garden Collection, a story of courage, strength, and unconditional love. I’ve posted the New Year’s Eve Prologue to this sweet romance a few years ago. If you prefer to start there, here’s the LINK. Enjoy.
Friday, December 31st – Present Day
Standing behind the counter at Mason’s Diner, Brianna Carlson waited for Henry Mason to pass her orders through the grill window. The breakfast and lunch crowd had her running. Now, the late lunchers filled only three of the ten stools at the counter and two of the eight booths along the windows.
Her half-sister Chloe’s paper snowflakes covered all of the windows as if another blizzard had hit town. Multi-color Christmas lights blinked around the window frames. By the cash register next to the counter, a two-foot-high fake Christmas tree held so many of Chloe’s homemade ornaments the patrons couldn’t see the branches.
Catching her breath, Brianna stared at the poster behind the register and smiled. Lucy had suggested Bree put her own doodle sketches to good work and enter the competition to design the New Year’s Eve Gala poster. Out of one hundred applicants, she won. She had drawn dark snowy woods where the old trees have snarled branches. The trees’ arthritic fingers reach for the sparkling red box with a bright white bow that illuminates the small clearing. The caption reads What is the Ultimate Gift?
Bree was proud of herself and so were the regulars at the diner. They celebrated her excitement by encouraging her to attend the gala. As the winner, she received one hundred dollars and a ticket to the party. She had saved her money for three weeks to buy a dress with matching purse and shoes.
“Bree, your order’s up,” Henry yelled from behind the grill. She saw only his eyes and the top of his bandana-covered baldhead through the open window.
The retired men along the counter chuckled. “Are you daydreaming again, Cinderella?” Charlie asked as he took off his baseball cap that had covered his thinning gray fringe.
Blushing, she laughed. “Maybe I’ll find my Prince Charming tonight,” she replied, picking up the BLT and cheeseburger platters.
George unrolled his silverware from his napkin. “Are you ever going to tell us what’s in the red box from your poster?”
She set Charlie’s BLT in front of him and grabbed the ketchup from under the counter. “What do you think is in the box?” she asked, handing George the bottle for his burger and fries.
“Money?” George asked.
“How about keys to a yacht?” Charlie added.
“I know what’s in the box,” Chloe said from the end of the counter. Her long brown hair in a thick braid matched her big sister’s. Chloe bit into a French fry and grinned.
“Well, my sweet one, please share with us,” Bev Mason said from behind the cash register. With her wrinkled smile, she played the elder matron with ease.
Chloe looked at her. “Can I tell them?”
Bree laughed and nodded. “I always thought it was obvious,” she said, absently touching her gold locket tucked under her Mason’s Diner t-shirt.
“Tell us right now,” George demanded. He winked at Chloe as he wiped his mouth.
“It’s love, sillies. I can’t believe you never guessed it.”
“Oh, and you’re a genius?” Bev asked
“I’ve gotten all excellent marks so far in first grade,” Chloe stated.
Brianna nodded. “You have a lot of wonderful tutors,” she said, glancing at her work family.
Chloe had grown up on that stool. They had put her name on it. Bree felt blessed that Bev and Henry let her work and care for Chloe at the same time. Over the years, the regulars had taken turns keeping her occupied. She and Chloe had many aunts and uncles.
As the men teased Chloe that they had made her smart, Officer Eddie Kent stomped his feet inside the door. In his dark blue uniform and auburn crew cut, he sat at the opposite end of the counter. Having known Eddie since they were in kindergarten, Bree greeted him with his usual glass of milk.
“It’s not ready yet?” he asked.
She frowned. “I wasn’t sure you were working today. I’ll get right on it.”
Bree quickly entered the kitchen and helped Henry with the order of rare steak and scrambled eggs with a side of raw onions and garlic toast. Eddie ate it every day he worked. Superstitious about his job, he said it kept him safe. For the last year, that’s all he ate. She carefully set his plates in front of him. She had learned not to stand too close afterward.
“Bree, don’t worry. I’m here if you need anything,” Eddie said, reaching for the knife.
“Kent! I will explain it,” Chief Mason said, taking up the entire doorway.
Brianna looked at Cameron Mason, the Chief of Rushing for the last ten years. With his bushy brown mustache, he reminded her of a young Sam Elliott from the Western movies. He had the deep voice like him, too. All he needed was a cowboy hat. Bev and Henry were proud of him and his profession although Bev hoped he’d marry soon. She wanted grandbabies.
Bree thought of him as an overly protective big brother. Since she didn’t have a car or a license for that matter, he’d give them a ride occasionally across town to their tiny loft apartment. He also lectured her on safety. She and Chloe paid attention to all of his rules.
Chief Mason smoothed down his thick mustache with his thumb and finger and pointed her to the end booth. His business-like manner unnerved her. With a hand over her stomach, she sat.
He stopped Chloe from jumping off her stool. “Stay put. I want to talk to Bree in private.”
“Cam, what’s wrong?” she asked as he sat across from her.
“I just found out Wayne got parole.”
She gasped. “When?”
“He’ll be released tomorrow. Because of overcrowding, he’s being let out earlier than I had expected. There was nothing I could do.”
“Oh, God.” She placed her shaking hands on her lap. Chloe stared at her reaction. “Do you think he’ll come back here?” she whispered.
“I honestly don’t know. Follow my rules, Bree. They’ll keep you safe. If you see him anywhere in town, call my cell,” he said, pulling out his card.
She stopped him. “I still have it memorized.”
Cam nodded and left for the kitchen to talk to his father. She stared out the window at the two fresh inches of snow. What should she do? Wayne’s letters from prison promised to take Chloe away from her. She had no legal rights. Could he come back and reclaim his daughter? She would not let that happen. He would never lay a hand on Chloe. Bree had taken the brunt for years so he wouldn’t hurt her.
Chloe knew next to nothing about her father. Bree had told her that he was in jail because he had hurt them. Bree had preached taking responsibility for your actions since Chloe could talk.
Chloe thought it was like being grounded for doing something naughty. That pretty much summed it up. Although Bree didn’t think Wayne would learn anything from the experience except more contempt toward her for putting him there. He would return to make her suffer. She had to leave. She jumped as Chloe slid in next to her.
“Bree, what’s the matter?
She hugged her. “Nothing for you to worry about, my sweet Clover,” she said, nudging her out of the booth. “I have to get back to work.”
While she made plans in her head, she absently cleared the tables. While carrying the tub of dirty dishes, she banged her shin into the metal cart behind the counter. The tub crashed to the floor. Plates and mugs shattered. With tears in her eyes, she rushed to clean the mess. This usually happened when she was stressed or tired. With partial blindness in her left eye and a limp from a healed broken leg, her coordination sometimes made her clumsy.
Eddie Kent laughed as he finished his meal. “Bev, have you run out of plates yet?”
Bree looked up at her. “I’m sorry.”
Bev smiled. “Honey, it’s an hour past your shift. We know it’s not your fault. Why don’t you and Chloe take off? Tonight’s the big night.”
As she put the last broken plate in the tub, she slid it to the side and stood. Charlie grinned and asked, “You’ll save me a dance?”
“I’m first in line. She promised me yesterday,” George added.
Bree smiled as they tried to cheer her up. “Only if you can recognize me. It’s a masquerade ball after all.”
She helped Chloe with her coat, hat, and mittens. Stepping outside, she took a deep breath. They would make a run for it. They’d hide, and Wayne would eventually give up looking. With a purpose, she reached for her sister’s hand.
“Bree, do you want a ride?” Eddie asked, absently patting the gun at his side.
Resisting the urge to wrinkle her nose at his horrid breath, she shook her head. “We have errands. Thank you though.”
Bree gently tugged Chloe’s hand down the street. They had three stops before she dropped Chloe off with Lucy, who was recuperating from a sprained ankle. Luckily, the stops were in order of the direction they were going. Chloe shuffled her boots through the snow on the sidewalk and sang “Let it Snow.”
After closing out her savings account with one hundred and twenty-six dollars, she pulled open the door to the pawnshop. The stifling heat hit them in the face as they wiped their boots on the rug just inside the door. She spotted Gus Fuller wearing a Santa hat. He had played Santa at the diner’s Christmas party. With a long white beard, he fit the part perfectly.
Bree sighed. “I need to talk to Gus for a moment. Do you want to wander around?” Chloe nodded and headed for the stack of board games while Bree met him at the counter. “I’d, uh, like to see what I can get for this,” she said, slipping her precious locket over her head.
Gus turned it in his hand. “This is a high-end piece. I’d say it’s worth about two grand. I can only give you five hundred, but Donovan’s Jewelry may give you more.”
She groaned. Robert had spent too much money on her. Her eyes started to water. She quickly wiped her face. This is about responsibility and survival not sentimental trinkets. She took the locket back from him and stared at it. She wore it all the time and touched it often. She was surprised the etched ivy hadn’t worn off. Finally nodding, she set it back on the counter. She had to protect Chloe. As she tucked the money into her wallet, Chloe joined her with a magic kit.
“Bree, do we have extra for this? It’s three dollars,” Chloe said.
Gus smiled. “It’s yours for a hug.”
Chloe laughed and ran around the counter. After paying with a hug, she kissed his cheek and tugged his beard. “Thanks, Gus.”
With slouched shoulders, Brianna moved toward the door.
“Bree, take care of yourself,” Gus said quietly.
She wanted to grab her locket and run. Instead, she limped out the door. There would be no turning back.
The bus station had one last departure at five tonight for Chicago. She didn’t think they’d have time to pack so she opted for the ten o’clock trip tomorrow morning. She wanted to be selfish and go to the gala. Her one last hurrah.
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