Dreaming of Her Secret Santa’s Kiss

Chapter 1

 

Note from Jessie:

Sorry, I know it says “Chapter 1” here, but I wanted to make sure everyone saw this, and sometimes Amazon opens your kindle directly to Chapter 1, skipping everything before it.

Some of my ARC readers suggested a Trigger Warning for this book.

I thought that was a good idea, but, since I’m a story teller, I thought I’d tell you a story to let you know what might be in this book that could stir up some painful memories and feelings. I don’t want you to read this book if it’s going to hurt you or make you sad.

Back when I was a young mother I saw an interview on late night TV. I don’t usually watch TV, but I’m guessing I was up with one of my babies. Maybe they were sick.

Anyway, some late-night TV host was interviewing a porn star.

I got married young and was a very young mother. That girl on TV was probably exactly my age.

She described some of the things she did, despicable things. Things I had never heard of or imagined. I think she shocked the shock jock as she removed her clothes and offered to do those despicable things to him.

I should have turned the TV off.

But my heart was broken.

Beyond her fake smile and false bravado and her seeming unconcern for any type of decency or modesty lay a soul that my God loved and died for.

To me, her pain was real. I could feel it just as sure as if I were sitting beside her and she were crying on my shoulder. For me, every word that came out of her mouth was a plea for love and acceptance – the kind that only God can give – and she was trying to fill that soul-deep need by any and all depravities known to man.

We were poor. We never had much. But I had been blessed beyond measure.

I knew, as I sat there, my heart hurting, that I could have had a different family, different parents, different school, made different choices, that, but for the grace of God, that girl could have been me.

I don’t remember her name, don’t know what happened to her. But she made a life-time impression on me, and I wanted to dedicate this book to her. Because she changed my life.

~Jessie Gussman, October 16, 2020

 

Burgundy Gannon rapped sharply on the dilapidated old farmhouse door, drawing a deep breath and trying to pretend this wasn’t her last resort.

She was also trying to pretend her ankle didn’t hurt.

She hadn’t noticed the weak board on the porch steps a couple seconds ago. When she stepped on it and it gave way, she was unprepared. She didn’t think she’d actually sprained her ankle, but it was definitely throbbing.

If she got the job, it would be worth it.

Of course, as run-down as the whole farm looked, maybe she should insist on prepayment.

Was having a job that she ended up not getting paid for better than not having a job at all?

The door opened before she could figure out the answer to that question. She thought it might be a no.

A wizened old lady appeared as the door cracked wider. Wild white hair stuck out in all directions from her head, and she wore bright green pants with an orange flowered shirt and a pink vest.

Black high-top Converse sneakers completed the outfit.

Even in LA, Burgundy’s most recent address, this lady would be considered eccentric.

In Mistletoe, Arkansas? She was probably right up there with UFO sightings.

Her eyes looked shrewd, and they were narrowed as they looked Burgundy up and down.

If this lady, Mrs. Scholz, was an inch over four feet, it wasn’t by much.

It didn’t really matter how tall she was. Her eyes more than made up for any lack in height. It felt like she could see into Burgundy’s heart and past and knew exactly what she was trying to hide.

The guilt that never quite completely left her slithered in her stomach, burning.

It always made her want to crumple in on herself.

She straightened her shoulders instead. The sins of her past were covered.

She knew it. Had knowledge. Sometimes, though, it was hard to remember and harder to believe. And even harder to act like it.

“State your business, or get gone.”

The words were spit out, and they didn’t really have an undertone of kindness in them.

Burgundy blinked, a little taken aback. But she didn’t allow her shoulders to drop, nor did she step back.

She’d been in tougher places than this.

Of course, she’d taken worst jobs than this too.

That’s why she needed this one so badly. There was always the temptation, no matter how far she was away from her past, to go back to it. If she needed it.

She knew there was something she could do to support herself.

Even if it was reprehensible.

She wanted to think she would die first.

But she knew she wouldn’t. She was a survivor, not a martyr.

“Pastor Race sent me. He said you needed a caretaker.”

There. Her voice was level, calm. With just the right amount of caring in it. Maybe Hollywood had passed her up, but she was still a good actress.

The woman’s eyes narrowed, and her lips pursed, although the wrinkles in her face didn’t straighten out. She looked Burgundy up and down, then up and down again.

Once more, Burgundy had that feeling like she’d been found wanting or that she’d been found out.

No one in this town knows what you are. Relax. They won’t find out, unless you tell them.

Unless someone watches…

Not in this town. Not in middle America. That’s for the big cities.

It wasn’t true. She knew it wasn’t true. She also knew it was shocking the people who might know her.

But in her movies, she had been a brunette.

For six months, she’d been a redhead.

That’s why her hair was now platinum blonde.

She’d also straightened her natural curls out.

The glasses were part of her disguise as well.

“Well? What do you have to say for yourself? Are you just gonna stand there staring at me?”

“Race Steiner sent me. He said you were in need of a caretaker. That’s what I am. A caretaker.”

She was kind of proud of her acting skills.

She wasn’t anything close to a caretaker.

Some of her coworkers would laugh at that.

All of them really. Because technically, maybe she was taking care of people. Men. In the loosest sense of the words.

She shoved the lewd jokes aside.

That was something else. She’d had to get used to a whole new way of thinking. Just little things would bring the words and the images and the jokes and the things she used to laugh about and the things that used to make her angry to the surface.

“You don’t look like a caretaker,” the woman spat out. Again, it didn’t sound like there was any kindness in her voice. “You look like a sultry tramp who’s out to steal my husband.”

Maybe a shadow passed over the woman’s eyes at the word husband. Burgundy couldn’t be sure.

“’Course the man’s been dead nigh on five years now. Which is why I need a caretaker.”

If her voice was a little bit less rough, less sharp, it was hard to tell. Still, whether it was the shadow, or whether it was the idea of being married for such a long time, and thinking of her loss, her words made Burgundy feel bad.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said again.

“Don’t be. It’s over and done with. He’s currently the better off of the two of us.”

Burgundy looked the woman up and down, trying to figure out what she meant by that.

Maybe if she got the job, the information would come out.

She hadn’t exactly put her best foot forward.

But, in her defense, her best foot had a turned ankle that was throbbing right now.

She took a breath and held her hand out with the best smile that she could muster. She was really good at smiling when she didn’t feel like it.

“I’m Burgundy, and I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs.…?” She figured the woman was Mrs. if her husband had died years ago.

The woman looked at her hand with suspicion, like she suspected Burgundy was holding it out as some kind of trick.

Her jaw worked before she finally stuck her old gnarled hand into Burgundy’s. Her fingers were crooked, but her grip was surprisingly firm.

Burgundy didn’t flinch, but she might have if it hadn’t been a little old lady squeezing her fingers.

Thankfully, she wasn’t wearing any of the rings that she might have been if she were back in her old life.

It’d been a full year.

In some ways, it felt like forever, and in some ways, it wasn’t nearly long enough.

“You can call me Mrs. Scholz. That’s what everyone else does.”

The lady seemed to speak reluctantly, like she wasn’t wanting to give up any personal information, or maybe she just didn’t want to like Burgundy. Maybe it was a mixture of the two.

“It’s such a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Scholz. Pastor Race has highly recommended me. Here’s the letter he wrote that he said I could deliver to you, to help you make up your mind.”

Her fingers trembled ever so slightly as she pulled the note out of her purse and handed it to Mrs. Scholz.

Mrs. Scholz looked suspiciously at the paper and Burgundy’s hand.

Everyone in Mistletoe had been super friendly to her. She’d even made a few dollars waitressing at the small coffee shop when the regular waitress spent two days visiting her mother.

She’d made a little more money selling Christmas trees for a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Both of those jobs had expiration dates though, and if she wanted to stay in a small town, which she did, she needed to find something that she could do that would pay enough for her to stay.

Maybe one time, her tastes ran to fancy. Not anymore.

Mrs. Scholz did not invite her in but stood in the doorway as she opened the letter and read down through it.

Burgundy had quit smoking, but she supposed the craving for a cigarette would never completely go away.

This was one of those times.

Not that she necessarily wanted the nicotine, she just wanted to have something to do with her hands.

She had been one of the lucky few who could do drugs without getting addicted to them. At least she never had. She supposed everyone had their tipping point.

It was only by the grace of God that she hadn’t reached hers.

In her old life, it wasn’t hard to see what drugs did to a person.

Mrs. Scholz seemed to be done reading the paper, but her head was still down, like she was thinking.

Behind her, there was a shout and a couple of dogs barking and what sounded like someone pounding.

Burgundy didn’t turn to look. It was a farm, or something like that, and she supposed there were animals on it and people working. Made sense.

She also supposed that the animals wouldn’t come up on the porch and try to get in the house, so she felt like she was safe standing there with her back toward everything.

“Well, might be against my better judgment, but I do have a tendency to trust what Pastor Race says.” The woman’s eyes were shrewd as she looked at Burgundy. “I’m gonna have to start you at half my regular rate, since you have no experience.”

“You have a regular rate?” Burgundy had been under the impression that she was the first housekeeper that Mrs. Scholz had hired.

“I do.” Mrs. Scholz named minimum wage.

Burgundy bit her tongue. Hard. The metallic taste of blood seeped into her mouth. Not unfamiliar.

She wasn’t quite sure what Mrs. Scholz had suggested was legal.

Not that she was a stickler for being legal.

At least, she had never been before.

She’d changed. For the most part.

It was hard not to think of the money that she’d made in her previous profession.

Half of minimum wage wouldn’t even pay for one minute.

But the work was wrong. And she was ashamed of it. And no matter how much she made, she wouldn’t go back.

God, will I always be tempted?

She wasn’t tempted because she loved her work; she could almost get to the point where she separated it as a job in her head. She didn’t have to like what she was doing in order to do it.

She just did her best at her job.

Ugh. She was lying to herself, and she knew it. By the very virtue that it was her with her voice, her body, or both, it didn’t matter. It was a job, yes, but it was a job she could have refused.

But she didn’t.

“I suppose you can come in if you’re accepting. You’re not very talkative.”

Too many memories.

“I’m sorry. I’ll accept. How long is the probationary rate?”

“Two weeks,” Mrs. Scholz said shortly. “If you’re satisfactory, I’ll raise it to minimum wage.” She stepped back, and Burgundy stepped in. “We’ll discuss it six months from then if we’re both satisfied and talk about where we’re going from there.”

Mrs. Scholz might be a little lady, and kind of bent over, with gnarled fingers, but her mind was sharp as a tack anyway.

She walked in the house, which was cluttered to say the least.

Race hadn’t given her all the details. He’d been called out to try to counsel a couple involved in the middle of a fight that involved breaking dishes and crying little children.

He’d given Burgundy the barest of details, handed her the letter, and told her he had to go.

“That sounds fine, Mrs. Scholz.” Part of the job was that she would have a room in which to stay and food to eat.

She really didn’t have ambition beyond that. Hiding out and putting her past behind her.

It would just take time.

She closed the rickety door behind her with a sigh. Knickknacks covered every surface. Burgundy tried hard to figure out a theme, but it seemed to be geese mixed with mushrooms mixed with pink flamingos maybe?

The rug she stood on sported a purple dinosaur.

Maybe the cohesive theme was that there was no cohesive theme.

Mrs. Scholz walked through a door on the right. “Obviously, this is the kitchen. I can cook. But the social worker that was in here said I should have supervision, which I completely disagree with, but in order to stay…” Her voice trailed off, and there was that shadow again.

Burgundy tried to set her past aside. Mrs. Scholz obviously had some pain in her past as well.

“You might as well know it now. I sold the farm. But,” her eyes got crafty, “I made the sucker who bought it promise that I could stay here until I died. He insisted that I had to have a caretaker. So that’s why you’re here. He’s afraid I’ll burn the house down by leaving the oven on.” The old lady shifted. “Maybe he’s right. I have forgotten a time or two. But doesn’t everyone?”

Burgundy nodded. “Actually, I have. I’m horrible at remembering to turn it off. I get involved in other things, and I’ve left it on all night before.”

“Exactly! That’s exactly what I told him. So normal.”

Burgundy grinned and nodded.

Mrs. Scholz didn’t exactly grin at her, but she felt like maybe they had a tenuous bond trying to form between them, united against whoever it was that had bought her house.

“So, there’s someone else living here too?”

Those crafty old eyes shifted back, and the old lady nodded. “I can’t believe Pastor Race didn’t tell you that.”

“He was kinda busy.”

Which was fine. It didn’t matter whether there was someone else living here or not. Although, she couldn’t help the little tremolo of fear that gripped her heart every time she thought of meeting someone new.

Would they recognize her? Would they know who she was?

So far, she hadn’t gotten the impression that anyone in Mistletoe knew. She’d really like to keep it that way.

Although, she kinda had a feeling that one’s past had a tendency to catch up with one, and she doubted she was the exception to that rule. She hadn’t been the exception to any others.

“Did you bring your stuff with you?” Mrs. Scholz tilted her head around as though looking for a bag would make one materialize near Burgundy.

“I have a couple of suitcases and a duffel out in my car.”

It was everything she had in the world. When she’d hit rock bottom, she didn’t have much left worth salvaging.

Most of the clothes she had were clothes that she’d gotten after she’d been rescued.

“Might as well go out and get them, bring them in here. We’ll take them upstairs and show you to your room.” Mrs. Scholz crossed her arms over her chest and stood back. Something about the discordance of her outfit made her blend right into the discordance of the house décor.

Funny how things seemed to suit each other.

Burgundy just hoped she found something that suited her.

As she walked out to her car, she saw a couple cows over by the barnyard, but no people.

Her heart wouldn’t let her rest until she met the new owner of the farm and found out, by looking at his face, whether or not he knew her.

Her suitcase bounced along behind her as she limped back to the house. Her ankle wasn’t twisted and would probably be fine, if a little stiff in the morning.

She walked up the porch steps a little more carefully this time.

She followed Mrs. Scholz upstairs, past piles of family pictures on the walls and shelves of knickknacks. She was careful not to bump them, even though she was a little off balance with her suitcases. That was not the kind of inauspicious beginning she wanted.

They took a right and went down to the far room. Mrs. Scholz opened the door.

“This is yours. It don’t have too much stuff in it. It took me two weeks to clean this one out. Hope you’re happy with it.”

The bedroom was at the back of the house, with great big windows that stretched almost from the floor to the ceiling, giving her a gorgeous view of the backyard and what she assumed were pasture fields. She was more than happy.

The beauty outside more than beat the dingy window view of her apartment in LA. Even with the amount of money she made, she’d never had a great place to live.

Drugs were expensive.

“This is perfect. Thank you.”

“Got some warm ’ems up we can have for supper. You can start cooking tomorrow.” Mrs. Scholz started to back out the door. “We eat at six, whether that man is here or not.”

Burgundy’s eyebrows went up at that, but she didn’t make a comment.

That man.

The way Mrs. Scholz spat that out made it sound like she didn’t care for the guy.

“I’ll be down early to help set the table.”

She could earn her keep. But she did appreciate the chance to settle in.

As soon as the door closed, she went to her handbag and pulled out a ratty-looking gray stuffed elephant.

“Oh, Rosemary. Here we are. Another new spot. We probably can’t put our roots down here, either. But maybe we can try putting out a few tentacles. We have to get the stuffy Mrs. Scholz to love us or at least like us a little.”

She stroked down the soft gray fur and then squeezed the animal to her chest.

Rosemary had gone with her from move to move to move, although she hadn’t gotten her until after the worst moment of her life.

She’d not been there when the first boy was in her bedroom at thirteen.

She’d not been there when she’d been voted “most popular” in her high school freshman class.

She’d not gone on overnight cheerleading trips.

And she’d not gone along on the senior class trip, when she shared a room—and a bed—with Todd and Brian.

“Why weren’t you there to tell me that was wrong?” she asked Rosemary, holding the elephant away and looking into the one eye that was still attached. Most of the gray fur had been rubbed off. She looked lumpy and was probably filthy.

Burgundy would never give her up.

Rosemary didn’t have to answer anyway. Burgundy might not have had moral teaching, and everybody had been telling her from the time she was little that it was okay as long as she used protection. Which she had.

But her heart had told her it was wrong.

Her conscience, her soul, her spirit. It never felt right. It might have been fun, and she’d always made sure she enjoyed herself.

But it never felt right.

Man, she wished she could go back and do it all over again. So much she’d do different

“We’re starting over, Rosemary.” She kissed the elephant and set her on the bed. Now, the room felt like hers.