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Echoes of Winter

Echoes of Winter

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Echoes of Winter

ratings:
3/5 (1 rating)
Length:
1,026 pages
14 hours
Released:
Nov 27, 2015
ISBN:
9781519957825
Format:
Book

Description

Thirteen never before seen YA short stories just in time for the holidays!

Book 1: Twelve Days to Christmas by L.A. Starkey
Book 2: Christmas Seasoning by DB Nielsen
Book 3: Merry Chris Witch by CK Dawn
Book 4: Wrapped in the Past by Chess Desalls
Book 5: Butterflies in the Snow by D.E.L. Connor
Book 6: The Darkest Night of the Year by Tim Hemlin
Book 7: Cold Hearth by Kelly Hall
Book 8: Code X by W.J. May
Book 9: Good Saint Nick by Lu J Whitley
Book 10: Soaring by K.K. Allen
Book 11: A Spirit’s Last Gift by Kathy-Lynn Cross
Book 12: Winter Trials by K.S. Marsden

((Take a peek inside the cover to read the synopsis for these great YA short stories!))

These stories have never been published before and were written specifically for this anthology. Hope you enjoy this wintery adventure!!

Released:
Nov 27, 2015
ISBN:
9781519957825
Format:
Book

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Echoes of Winter - L.A. Starkey

YOU!!

ECHOES OF WINTER ANTHOLOGY

Book 1: Twelve Days to Christmas by L.A. Starkey

Jessie Young hates the holidays. It’s simple, you see. Too many holly jolly people, gathered ‘round the Christmas tree. But the snow starts to fall, and the joy seems like fun. Only twelve days until Christmas, She can’t wait till it’s done!

Book 2: Christmas Seasoning by DB Nielsen

Winter weddings are meant to be magical but when her brother’s fiancée turns into Bridezilla, seventeen-year-old Ellie Henderson can’t wait to escape from dress fittings, wedding plans and rehearsal dinners. It’s anything but happy holidays until she meets the sexy, tempting Simon whose sweet kisses threaten to spice things up this Christmas season...

Book 3: Merry Chris Witch by CK Dawn

Chris Heron is a witch who loathes the holiday season. What’s even worse is getting expelled from private coven school on Halloween and having to attend public magic school, where Santa’s son is visiting and has all the girls in a frenzy. Fairies, mermaids, elves, even the trolls are swooning over Kris Kringle Jr. All except for one girl, and she’s a North Pole mystery that has Chris intrigued. Will he be able to put his prejudices aside in time to see the true magic all around him?

Book 4: Wrapped in the Past by Chess Desalls

Shirlyn travels back in time to ancient Persia where she meets the three magi who follow the Star of Bethlehem. The youngest mage captures her heart; but his silhouette will forget they ever met, unless she leaves a reminder that comes with a heavy price.

Book 5: Butterflies in the Snow by D.E.L. Connor

Rose isn’t interested in any high school romance, her only desire is to see her Mom and little sister for Christmas, and she will do anything to get to them. But when she steals Josh’s prized vintage Mustang car, he embarks on a mission to discover her carefully guarded secret and hopefully win her heart.

Book 6: The Darkest Night of the Year by Tim Hemlin

Bobby Hawthorne loves the magic of the holidays, and for the first time he can share the truth behind the magic with Angelina, the girl that he loves and with whom he shares a special bond. But when the magic literally starts to disappear, along with Angelina, he realizes a sinister force has entered the light of his world and his only hope may reside in a frightened stranger with a dark secret of her own.

Book 7: Cold Hearth by Kelly Hall

Dahlia Dane is back with a vengeance and wants nothing more than to make her brother miserable for his recent betrayal. But when Dominic is captured, and his fate is in the balance, will Dahlia give up what she wants to save him, or will their sibling rivalry survive Christmas?

Book 8: Code X by W.J. May

Seventeen year old Whitney is a child of untapped potential whose only outlet into the world is through her computer and the cybernetic wilderness that she has limited access to. Better than most hackers, Whitney engages in cyber-vigilantism, but also knows that she's more than a little drawn to uncovering secrets. Eventually she's going to get caught, but how many dark and mysterious places can she find before she does?

Book 9: Good Saint Nick by Lu J Whitley

Trying his best to live by the rules at the strict Kringle & Sons Workshop, Nicklaus dreams about what life is like in the outside world. One stormy winter’s night, Edie steals her way into his life and his heart, and shows him what it can be like to throw away the rules and have some fun. Together, they set off on a wild sleigh ride that will go down in history as the night a legend is born.

Book 10: Soaring by K.K. Allen

On an Alaskan cruise in the dead of winter, Emma and Luke find each other under the aurora borealis, a phenomenon that bonds them in the most unlikely of ways. While Luke teaches Emma what it means to soar, she gives him a reason to stay grounded, but as their journey nears its end memories of a forgotten past surfaces, challenging their future—if a future for them still exists.

Book 11: A Spirit’s Last Gift by Kathy-Lynn Cross

All Juslynn wants is to attend the Snow Flurry Dance, with her secret love, Carter and possibly receive her first kiss for Christmas. Unfortunately, it never came to pass and now she waits for his kiss from the grave.

Book 12: Winter Trials by K.S. Marsden

With Midwinter just around the corner, Mark's Nanna decides that it is time he learnt more about his family heritage. Learning witchcraft shouldn't be too difficult, right?

Balancing school, magic, and the distractions of the gorgeous new guy, should make this a very interesting winter.

Book 1: Twelve Days Until Christmas

By L.A. Starkey

––––––––

Twelve Days Until Christmas

Copyright © 2015 by L.A. Starkey

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

The novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and plot are all either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons – living or dead – is purely coincidental.

First Edition.

Editor: Denise Nielsen, Valerie Hemlin and Tim Hemlin

Chapter 1

The snow starts to fall,

and the joy seems like fun,

Only twelve days until Christmas,

I can't wait till it's done!

This is the worst month ever, Kathryn mumbled and pressed her hands to the glass counter beside me.

I'm with you there. It would be nice to just skip from Thanksgiving to your New Year's resolutions and jump right over Christmas. I turned and smiled at another customer who had a handful of clothes.

Hi girls. Can one of you check the prices on these for me? They weren't on the sale rack, but I think everything is on sale in your store today, right? She smiled tightly and glanced between me and Kathryn.

I'll go put back returns. You help her out, I called over my shoulder and walked away quickly. Having a job was bad most of the year, but during the holidays it was heinous. Why people felt the need to max out their credit cards and give boxes of stuff to people that they should have cared about all year long was beyond me.

I didn't get it, and I didn't care to. I suffered through the holiday and held my breath, just waiting for the crap to slap the fan. It always happened.

Picking up a pile of skinny jeans that someone had spent time trying on and pulling inside out, I grumbled and worked my way through the hordes of people. My mother would be on my case to help decorate the tree, seeing that I hadn't put my ornaments on the smelly green beast just yet.

It was simple really. Christmas hated me, and well, I hated it back.

Every year something horrible came rolling down the hill, starting around the first of December. My stars didn't align, or maybe my arch enemy made a pact with the devil, because at the sign of the first snow in our sleepy little town, all hell would break loose - on me specifically.

Excuse me, I've been looking everywhere for someone that works here. A rather tall woman leaned over the top of me in an intimidating fashion and flared her nostrils. Do you work here?

Nope. Just trying on jeans. I smiled and bounced the huge armful of jeans around. Besides. I don't speak English.

The growl that left her caused me to chuckle. People were so full of themselves, always going out of their way to aggravate others. It was about power. The power to make someone feel something. That's what Christmas had turned into. My cousins fought over who was giving my grandmother the biggest and best gift when she was still alive, but it wasn't because they wanted her to have something nice. It was the power to make her feel deeply.

I caught a glimpse of my basketball teammates, or at least six or seven of them, standing a little ways away. Meredith, our tallest post saw me and squealed.

She's here, guys. Over there.

Of course you saw me. Freaking Amazonian, I grumbled and dropped the jeans in a pile before walking toward them with a fake smile on my face. Guys! What's up?

Are you working today? That sucks. Paula, our starting point-guard made a face, and I swore her nose got lost somewhere in the midst of her chubbiness. She hated me more than Monday mornings, but it was because I was quickly headed toward taking her place on the team.

Yeah. Unfortunately. But it's busy, so it should at least go by quickly. I glanced around, hating my life more than ever.

Well, we're going to do a little bit of shopping and then get out of here. Paula tilted her head and plastered on a fake smile of her own. She and I had been vying for the coach’s praise since we were in sixth grade. Now juniors, not much had changed. She was the deal maker with the evil guy - I had no doubt.

Hey... did we want to... Meredith started, and Paula cut her off.

No. We'll figure it all out and then share.

Share what? I asked. I had no shame and loved a good cat-fight more than the next girl. Probably due to me being raised with one brother who thought love was shown best when you were in a headlock and unable to breathe.

Nothing. Just thinking about community service stuff for the team. We'll give you a heads up when we can. Paula shrugged and turned her back to me.

Cool. Yeah, alright. I walked back to the pile of pants I was supposed to be sorting and picked them up, feeling more grumpy than I imagined possible.

Pst...

I turned to see Meredith crouching by a rack of ugly cat sweaters. We're planning our holiday party for the team, but they only want the starters there. It's stupid. Just know I'll be trying to get them to open it up to everyone. She gave me a smile that left me feeling pathetic.

I wasn't invited to the basketball party. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been invited to one, which hurt my feelings like hell, but no one was privy to that information. It's because it was December. If it could go wrong... it would.

Thanks, buddy, I mumbled to Meredith before looking up in time to see that Paula's face matched the annoyance in her voice.

Where is Meredith? Paula glanced over toward me.

If she was up your butt you'd know it. I smiled sweetly. She was the only one around, so our true colors could shine brightly.

Shut up, Jessie. Paula continued to search as Meredith started to hyperventilate beside me.

Don't let them know I'm over here. Her eyes grew wide.

You're six foot seven. You need to get on your stomach and wiggle out of here. Have you ever seen anyone do the worm? I smiled, but she didn't seem to get it. Just stay low and head toward the door that way.

I watched her go as my heart ached in my chest. Why was I always the one that got left out of everything?

*

After standing on my feet for nine hours, my boss finally let me leave for the day. Why I decided to get a job in the largest department store in all of the city, I had no clue. I didn't like people much for starters, which meant that I had the grand opportunity to suffer like nobody’s business for five out of seven days a week. And people in department stores didn't really represent humanity at its best. They're crabby, angry and always in this impossible hurry that makes no sense.

I walked out into the freezing cold weather and tugged my coat closer. The worst part about the holidays was that you were forced to get out far more than normal, and yet it was bone chilling cold. Snow was plowed up to the corners of the parking lot in large white and black piles. The dirt mixed with it, leaving it gnarly-looking.

Jimmy. Don't eat that, son! A young mother rushed after her toddler, pulling him from the afternoon snack of dirty snow he indulged in.

I ducked through a group of older women as a smirk played on my lips. Kids were so innocent. See it? Want it? Get it!

My car was at the far end of the lot, and by the time I reached it my fingers were numb. I dropped my keys three times before finally getting the key to slide into the lock. Several choice words slipped from my lips in the process, and more were on their way.

A young boy snickered at me as he stood by the car in front of mine, waiting for someone to unlock his door.

Something funny? I lifted my eyebrow. My tone was quite confrontational, but he shouldn't be in my business. I didn't even know the little turd.

Um yeah. You dip your fingers in butter?

Yeah, the peanut butter you've been eating too often. Lose weight and your cheeks will go down. That's not cute in high school. I winked and got in the car, quite proud of myself for almost making a prepubescent boy cry. It wasn't much of a win. If he had been in high school, maybe, but that was easier said than done.

I pulled the car back and almost ran into an older couple. I honked my horn and lifted my fist. Watch where you're going, you old bats! These large tin tanks are called cars. They will kill your ass.

My windows were up, but by the shocked looks on their faces, they knew I was being less than pleasant.

Whatever. Stupid old people. I pulled out onto the freshly-plowed roads and turned on the radio.

Jingle Bells. No.

Next Station. Deck the Halls. No.

Twelve stations later, I was growling and locked in a mood where I didn't even like myself. There had to be a place in the world that didn't celebrate Christmas. I would finish up high school and find it.

I turned down the dark road that would run a few miles ahead and end in my front yard. Almost home. I could fake a stomach ache and lock my bedroom door behind me. That would surely keep me safe from one more Christmas attack.

My car jerked, and I stiffened. Oh no! Not the car.

It jerked again, and I pulled over to the side of the dark, snowy road. The old thing puttered twice and died with me sitting in it. I leaned my head back and let out a long sigh.

Of course. Only in December.

Bright lights filled the car as someone pulled up behind me.

I rolled down my window and slipped my facade in place.

Hey, Jessie. Car trouble?

I knew his voice before I saw his face. I'd heard it all my life. It was the only one that caused butterflies to beat violently inside my chest.

Jason Green. My older brother's best friend.

My lifelong crush.

Chapter 2

The songs sound the same,

And the cookies get stale,

Only eleven days until Christmas,

Get me out of this hell!

I couldn't get my head out of the clouds where Jason was concerned. He'd brought me home and disappeared into my brother, Brent's room like he had been doing for the last fifteen years. I read a horror novel and lamented over the passing of Halloween. That was a legit holiday. One night of candy and scary movies and it was over. Christmas had gotten out of control, taking over from the day after Thanksgiving to the last day in December.

Insane. Outrageous.

Ridiculous! I growled, and walked out of my room the next day, just after lunch looking for something to eat. The sound of sleigh bells playing on the radio caused the hair to raise on the back of my neck. There was no such things as reindeer or elves... and the fat guy was the biggest joke ever. What a torrential let down when I was told the truth of Christmas. It was the most eye opening day of my life.

I pulled the plug on the radio and took scissors to the end of it. My mother would be upset, but I'd blame Brent and get a two-for-one. Him in trouble and the Christmas music officially banned from the house.

Hey cranky crab. My brother ruffled my hair as he walked by with Jason in tow.

I swatted his hand away and worked to fix my crazy brown curls as Jason winked at me.

Got something in your eye, stud? I asked and moved to sit down at the breakfast nook.

Yeah... a Christmas twinkle. He smiled at me, and I couldn't help but smile back. He knew I hated the holidays... everyone did.

He had to be the cutest guy in the whole universe. His sandy blond hair was disheveled most days, leaving him looking as if he didn't try at all to look as good as he did. Every time he turned his ocean-blue eyes on me, I thought I might melt. I wasn't a romantic-type, but for him I would try.

What are you thinking? Brent would never let you guys date. Besides, he's not interested. He's into girlie-girls.

Hey. Earth to Jessie. My brother waved his hand in front of my face.

What? Get that out of my face. I turned up my nose at him disdainfully.

Oh yeah? He moved around the counter, and picked me up as I squealed.

No! I was just kidding! Put me down you meat-head!

He dropped me on the couch and tickled my sides until tears blurred my vision from laughing so hard. Jason!

I'm here, princess, he called from over Brent, and took a hold of my brother, pulling hard and taking on the fight for me.

I got up and made sure to step on my brother's face as I made my way back to the kitchen. I hated the laughter that spilled from me, but it ignored my desire to remain cold.

There was a note from my mother that she was out shopping for the day and we were on our own. Looked like pizza was in order.

You're not going to touch her again, right? Jason pressed Brent's face to the carpet as he held him down. They were both football players at the school, but where my brother was the quarterback, his handsome friend was a linebacker, and had thirty pounds on him.

Why do you care? You used to help me tickle her. What the hell, bro? Brent twisted and turned, getting nowhere.

Say it and I'll let you up. Jason glanced up at me and winked.

No. Get off. I'm going to tear you in half if you're winking at her. She's my sister.

She's pretty. Jason watched me with interest.

Stop it. I rolled my eyes and went back into the kitchen. Let Brent up, and you guys go get pizza for us. Mom left money.

Jason jogged into the kitchen and moved behind me, taking me by the hips and swinging me around to defend him as my brother ran into the kitchen red-faced.

You punk! Taking Jessie's side? You better be kidding around. You got feelings for my baby sister, and I'll kill you. Brent tried to move around me, but Jason scooted us over.

He poked his handsome face just beside me, smiling like a tomcat. Kill me? Well, what a way to go.

Brent growled and lunged again before I could get untangled from them. Stop. Get off of me. Idiots!

Jason released me and tugged at my hair. We were just playing, crabby girl.

Go get the pizza and play with someone your own size. I turned away from them and walked into the pantry to get out the homemade hot chocolate that my mother slaved over every year. It was the only good thing about December, but even it would be used to scald me several times during the month.

I walked back out to find Jason filling a mug with water. He put one in the microwave and turned to me. Why are you so crabby during December every year? You've never explained why.

Where is Brent?

Getting the pizza.

He left you here alone with me? I lifted an eyebrow incredulously.

Of course he did. I told him that you're just like a little sister to me. Jeez. He rolled his eyes and turned, pulling the mug from the microwave.

My heart dropped into my stomach. Of course Jason thought of me as a kid sister. I'd only been pining after him for most of my life. Perfect.

I take it you're expecting me to share my mom's hot chocolate with you? I pulled out a spoon and tilted my head as I watched him. Pure male perfection.

He glanced over his shoulder and gave me a smile that melted my insides. Why are you so terse during December, Jess?

Jessie, and what kind of word is terse? I laughed and snorted. If I was the little sister, then might as well give him a good dose of my full personality.

Answer the question. He put the other mug in the microwave and pressed his back to the counter, crossing his arms over his thick chest and watching me.

Because.

Because why?

Because December sucks royally, okay?

No, it doesn't. He moved toward me, and I stiffened.

Just a little sister. Just a little sister.

Yes, it does. I cannot remember a year in my past that Christmas hasn't delivered bad news, horrible situations or embarrassment of some sort.

Give me an example. He slid his hands over my shoulders.

Chill bumps rushed down my arms, and I tugged away from him. Let's see. I never get invited to any parties, including the basketball one.

Would you go if you did?

Beside the point, I barked. My grandmother died three years ago on Christmas, and Daddy ten years ago during December.

That's horrible, I agree, but it's just a coincidence, Jess.

Jessie. You know I hate that nickname. I moved to get the other mug from the microwave. I just hate it. Plain and simple. I'm going to watch a movie.

He followed me into the living room and sat beside me, pressing his leg to the side of mine. What are we watching?

'The Grinch. There are three chairs in here and you're going to snuggle up in my personal space? I huffed and scooted over as hot chocolate sloshed out of my cup and covered the top of my favorite white t-shirt.

Jess. Hold still, and I'll get a towel. He moved to the kitchen as I grumbled every curse word known to man under my breath.

I put the cup on the coffee table and walked into the kitchen with a grimace on my face.

Jason turned from the sink and started to clean off my shirt like I was ten.

I jerked the towel from him and lifted my eyebrow.

I know you think I'm like a little sister, but I'm not.

I was kidding, Jess. He reached out and tugged at a strand of my hair. If I told Brent how long I've seen you as a woman instead of a girl, he'd never let me back into the house.

I rolled my eyes, tossed the towel at him and walked to my room, wishing he would just get lost. If he could take my bratty brother with him, all the better. There was no way he really saw me as anything other than a sister-figure. His teasing was cute, but I wasn’t at all in the mood to accept the smoke he was blowing up my butt.

One more year in high school and then I was gone. Maybe college would be a very different experience for me. I prayed it would. I wasn't sure I could take much more of being alone. Everyone had a good friend, but each one I had in the past always did something to ruin our relationship or decided that I did... and it always happened in - you guessed it - December.

I missed Lizzy Mays, but she would never hear it from my lips. The time for reconciliation was long passed for us.

Chapter 3

The children are happy,

For gift-giving’s sake,

Only ten days until Christmas,

Just throw me in the lake.

Jessie! Hurry up, child. Your brother was ready ten minutes ago. My mother's shill voice was less than appreciated the next morning. Being in a small town, we didn't get two weeks off at Christmas like the rest of the world. Year-round school meant we'd get a week at best.

Is he in the car freezing his nards off, Mom? I screamed from my open door.

Watch your mouth, young lady.

There was no use grounding me. I didn't do anything anyway. She couldn't take away the car. It was sitting dead to the world at old man Macafferty's in town. I'd not have it back until after the holidays.

Surprise, surprise.

I walked out to the kitchen and grabbed a muffin from the tins that sat on the stove. I'm leaving.

Fine. Don't take any of those muffins. I have just enough for the office.

I already had my teeth sunk halfway into one. I growled softly and moved back, inspecting the thing to see if I could get away with putting it back. No. It was more than obvious that a hungry teenager or angry grizzly got a hold of it. Ignoring the parental figure would be the best course of action. I'd ask for forgiveness when I got home, or pay Brent to take the brunt of mother's angst.

He honked the minute I got outside, but I ignored him too. He was in a hurry to see the cheerleaders practice. I understood his need to ogle at the prettiest girls in the school, but I was forced to ogle too. No thanks.

Hurry up, he yelled out of his window.

Coming, I murmured sweetly and got into the car.

What the hell, Jessie? This is why you have a car. He gave me a look and put the car in reverse, skidding out a little.

"Had a car, and chill out or you'll have had a car too. Mom's not too keen on us driving anywhere during the winter anyway." I took another big bite of the muffin as I let my bag slide to the floor at my feet.

Where did you get that?

What? This? I shoved the rest into my mouth and gave him a grin.

That's unfair. Did Mom give it to you? He poked at my side, which caused some of the muffin to go down my wind pipe.

I finally got it down and took a deep breath, coughing like someone in an iron lung. They were on the stove.

For her work people. She said not to touch them.

I must have had the hair-dryer on. I shrugged.

You don't blow-dry your hair.

Details... be quiet and enjoy the serenity before we have to deal with all of the jolly people.

It's the holidays. You should be jolly too. He poked my side.

Stop by and get Jason, and I'll overdo jolly. I promise.

Not funny. He turned on the Christmas music and started to sing.

Kill me.

Nope. I love you too much.

The feeling is not mutual.

You Grinch. He popped my arm softly.

You know me best. I rolled my eyes and turned to watch the empty fields of snow fly by. Ten more days. Only ten. I could get through it.

*

The text I got from my mother about having to watch my cousin Adam for the upcoming weekend left me feeling even less jolly than earlier. The kid was a total pain in the butt. He would work hard to destroy the house and by the time I got one room cleaned up, the little gofer had another torn to hell and back.

Jessie. Don't you look cute? Did your mother buy you that sweater? Lizzy Mays, the school’s head cheerleader, stopped in front of me, pressing her hand to her perfect hip and giving me a glare that would melt ice.

"Um, yeah. She's my mom. Who bought your shirt? Not you, because last time I checked, you had to be able to read and write English to fill out a job application. So sad that you’re lacking." I wiped a fake tear from my eye and walked past her.

Jess. Jason jogged up beside me. Hey. I meant to tell you that if you need a ride anywhere...

I'll get one from my brother, but thanks. I walked to the door of my calculus class and paused. Glancing over my shoulder, I smiled. Unless of course you want to give him a ride, and talk him into giving me his keys for a while.

Try again, pretty girl. Just trying to get you alone. He winked and turned, moving past the small gaggle of cheerleaders that stood in the middle of the hall. No doubt they were working hard to put together a comeback for my response to their fearless leader. I snorted and walked into the classroom, dropping down in a desk near the window.

It was beautiful outside, but the chill turned me off so badly that I couldn't appreciate it at all. The sound of people talking caught my attention. I tried to ignore it, but failed.

Right, so the party is this-coming weekend. You got your invite, right?

Duh. I grow weed in my garage. Of course I got the invite. Dustin Jones was the resident pothead, and could always be called upon to lighten up any event. He was an idiot who survived on two brain cells at best most days.

It's at Lizzy's house, right? The other voice was a guy I didn't know well.

I think so, but we should totally check. I'd hate to show up there and then have to deal with her dad. You know he's a monster of a dude.

Yeah. I don't know how she turned out so petite and cute.

I glanced down at myself, wondering why the hell I decided to wear jogging pants and a sweater to school. My outfit was made for a Saturday of laying on the couch, not for a day in the most judgmental high school in the United States.

A tap on my shoulder had me turning around. What?

Do you have a pencil I can borrow? Dustin extended his hand. I'm Dustin, by the way.

I rolled my eyes and gave him the pencil. We've been in school together since first grade, Dustin. I'm aware of who you are.

Jessie Young. How about you come on up and do problem one through five on the board for us... seeing that you'd rather talk to the cute boy behind you instead of doing your warm up. Mrs. Lawson smiled nefariously at me. She was the sponsor for the cheerleaders and liked me as much as they did.

Right. Why not? I walked to the front as various whispers started up about me and Dustin being together. Maybe this is a bad dream, and I'll soon discover I have no pants on and my underwear is ripped too.

She lifted her eyebrow. What?

Mumbling to myself ma'am. Doing the problem in my head like all geniuses do. I shrugged, then worked through the problems quickly. If I was anything, it was a math wizard, much like my dad had been. I turned to see the faces of my classmates filled with surprise. What?

I got a resounding wave of 'nothings' and flopped back into my seat.

Students. We have a new guy who's joined us from out of state. He will be here for the remainder of this year and all of next year. Say hello to Jack.

Hi, Jack, I mumbled alongside everyone else, even though I couldn't see him.

Conversation broke out across the room and I almost felt sorry for the kid. The people at my school could be such asses at times. Something about his hair, but I couldn't get the full drift of it.

I waited until class was over and the bell rang to try and locate him. He must have slipped out, because there were only familiar faces as I passed through the door and into the hall.

Lizzy and her group were crowded around someone, talking excitedly as I walked by. I turned and finally located the source of their excitement. A new guy. A beautiful new guy.

The smile that lifted his lips as his crystal blue eyes locked on mine sent a shiver down the center of my body.

Incredible, I whispered just before bumping into a huge senior. His books went everywhere and mine did too.

Damn. Clumsy girl. He growled and bent over.

I popped him on the cheek lightly. Be nice. It was an accident.

He glanced up in surprise that I would hit him. Ouch.

What? You called me a name.

I glanced to my left as the air chilled. The new guy.

His smile lifted again as he helped to gather up the books. The big guy moved away, and I stood, not quite able to get over the new guy's nearness.

His hair was so blond that it was almost white and I could have sworn the air around him was ten degrees colder. Good thing he was so incredibly hot.

I'm Jack. He extended his hand. And you're Jessie, right?

How did he know my name?

Chapter 4

My mother is thrilled,

That her fruitcake turned out,

Only nine days until Christmas,

What exactly is this about?

Meeting Jack was one of those moments that I would never forget. It was etched into my memory and I didn't honestly know why. He was impossibly dreamy, but so was Jason. I'd stick with what I knew and let the cheerleaders have their fun with the new guy. If he needed saving, I would do it, but otherwise... I wasn't interested.

Coach called my name as we warmed up for the game the next day, and I jogged over, not exactly sure what I'd done wrong. I hadn't gotten my butt chewed off by her in a few days, so it was past due either way.

Young. We're going to have you as starting point guard for the game. She glanced up at me. Please keep your mind on the game and do not throw attitude around. Got it?

Yep. I got it. I tried not to grimace at her. Throwing attitude was part of my persona, especially this time of year. It just came naturally.

You guys ready? I turned and jogged up to my team members who were huddled on the court.

Let's do this. One of the other girls pulled us into a tight huddle.

We worked through the three plays we were going to pull out first, and made sure everyone knew where to be before tip-off.

I glanced in the stands to see Jason sitting next to Lizzy. Why the girl would think it was okay to move on from my brother to his best friend was beyond me. It was disturbing, but if I knew Jason at all, he was just being polite.

A chill hit me from behind, and I glanced over my shoulder to see Jack sitting by himself near the door. His eyes were full of excitement and his smile caused my heart to flutter.

Head in the game, Captain, Mandy mumbled and pushed my shoulder.

Right. I tore my gaze away from the new kid and dove into playing my best. There were several times I wanted to lay into the referee, but the goal was to get more playing time, which meant keeping quiet.

Go Knights! The fans in the stands yelled loudly as I moved back and lifted to my toes, sinking a three-pointer in to tie us at half-time.

Warmth filled my insides and I let out a sigh of relief. Maybe things were start looking up. It wasn't probable, but I could hope.

We took our half-time break and I dropped down on the bench beside my teammates and scanned the crowd.

My stomach clinched as ice burst through my veins. Jason and Lizzy were locked in a hot kiss from the back of the stands. I guessed he figured he was covered by the bleachers and the hordes of people.

How could he do that to my brother? To me?

Tears burned my gaze, and I lifted my face to the ceiling, forcing myself to calm down. It didn't matter. I would tell Brent, and we could figure it out later. Right now was about the game.

*

The whistle blew at the end of the game. We won by three points. My three points. The team went nuts, lifting me in the air and acting ridiculous. It was the last game of the year, but the season would span into the spring for a few months at least. They were just hyped up on sugar and Christmas Carols, no doubt.

I forced them to put me down before they went into the locker room.

Hey. You need a ride home? Jason tugged on my hair.

I glanced over my shoulder, ready to be a jerk, but deciding maybe it would be best to just ask about the situation between him and Lizzy. Yeah. Thanks.

After working quickly to get my stuff together in the locker room, I walked out to find Lizzy talking with Jack. He broke away from her as I walked up, which didn't seem to please her too much.

Jessie. Great job out there. He smiled and tilted his head to the side. Do you want to maybe get a burger or something?

Nope. She doesn't. Jason's arm wrapped around my shoulders tightly.

Jack chuckled and turned his attention to Jason. I wasn't asking you.

Maybe another time. Thanks for the compliment. I turned and shoved Jason's arm off of me as we left the gym. Something about the new kid made me feel off - uncomfortable. He was almost too familiar to me somehow.

What was that about? Jason opened the door to his truck for me.

No clue. I got in and buckled up, waiting for him to get in. What was the deal with you and Lizzy? She's Brent's ex for shit-sake.

What are you talking about? He was a great liar or genuinely lost.

I saw you guys, Jason. Seriously. I rolled my eyes and turned the heater on.

He chuckled. What? Am I not allowed to sit next to a girl that's not you?

I jerked around and pinned him with an angry stare. What? I don't care who you do anything with. I wasn't talking about sitting next to her. I was talking about you sticking your tongue halfway down her throat.

He hit the brakes and the truck skidded a little, scaring me. What?

Nothing. Just never mind. I guess I saw her with someone who looked like you then. I shrugged and turned to look out the window.

Hey. He reached out and touched my arm, but I jerked it away. Jess.

It's Jessie. I've been correcting you for the last fifteen years. I growled softly, but kept my face averted from him. I didn't want him to see my emotions busting a leak on my face. He was lying, but it was his prerogative.

We rode in an uncomfortable silence the rest of the way home, and I wished like crazy that I had just called my mother or Brent to come get me. Why did I think questioning Jason about his obvious attraction to Lizzy would be smart?

Who was that guy? Jason's voice was soft, but probing as we pulled up to the house.

I unbuckled and got out of the truck, mumbling under my breath. No clue what you're talking about.

After slamming the door, I walked quickly to the house and knocked. Nothing.

Of course my keys were inside. I pressed my forehead to the door and knocked again.

Jason's truck door slammed, and I swallowed my pride and moved back.

Locked out?

Nope. I enjoy the freezing cold. It's blissful. I gave him a deadpan look.

You're lucky you're so damn cute. I have no clue how anyone could put up with you otherwise. He winked and seemed to ignore my angst. Pulling his spare key from his pocket, he popped it in the lock and chuckled at me.

Funny. I walked into the house and moved back as he followed me. I started to tell him to get lost, but some part of me wanted to figure out why he would jab at Brent by kissing his ex. I had no doubt at all that he’s been locked in a hot embrace with Lizzy. I could see it every time I closed my eyes.

Mind if I stay for a while? He moved to the couch and hesitated with his hands on his jacket.

Fine, but only a little while. I have homework, and I'm not really liking you much right now. I growled and dropped my own coat, mittens and hat on the table.

I get that. What I don't get is why? He laid his coat on the couch and walked toward me.

I stiffened as he reached me and slid his strong hands over my shoulders, squeezing softly. He reminded me of summer, his blond hair and warm blue eyes belonging on a handsome surfer and not some good-looking football player stuck in the northeast.

I'm not an idiot, Jason. I looked up at him, trying to relax a little. I'd been around this kid my whole life, and unfortunately had been in love with him most of it too.

He brushed my hair over my shoulder, which sent tingles rushing down my spine.

I didn't touch Lizzy, Jess. I don't care what you think you saw. I would never do that to Brent. Ever. He's like a brother to me. His face was so full of what appeared to be truth that I stood dumbfounded.

I didn't mean for the words to leave my mouth, but it was that time of the year when it would happen if it could. And what about me?

Would it hurt you if I kissed Lizzy? He moved closer, the heat from his nearness almost warming me.

I wanted to tell him the truth, but then I'd really look like an idiot. I turned my face up toward his and looked him straight in the face. No. Not in the slightest.

Then why ask?

Because I'm like a sister to you, and you know I hate her.

He let out a shallow laugh that fell flat. A sister. Right.

I pulled from him and walked into the kitchen. He was a liar or I was losing my mind. Hell, it was December.

It was probably both.

Chapter 5

The store's filled with crazy,

And tensions run high,

Only eight days until Christmas,

Why do any of us try?

Does this make me look fat? A large red-headed woman turned in the mirrors just inside the dressing room hallway.

Her dark-haired friend sitting just beside her tilted her head and shrugged. It's okay. Just cuts your middle a little.

Cuts my middle? Her tone dropped from friendly to a warning.

I can get you a bigger size if you like? I asked, trying to be helpful.

They both looked at me with horror on their faces. I couldn't help but glance over my shoulder, searching for the monster they must have laid eyes on.

Oh hell no she didn't. The one trying on clothes started down the hallway toward me.

Cindy. She's just a kid, and she was just trying to help. Her friend jumped up and held her back.

So no on the plus-sized skirt? I lifted my eyebrow, not really caring that the woman was upset. It was a dressing room and I worked at the store. There was nothing offensive about trying to see if she wanted a skirt that didn't cut her in half. Or perhaps I was wrong. It was the holiday season and people were high on Christmas cookies and dizzy from wassail apparently.

No. We're good. The dark-haired woman barked through clenched teeth.

Suit yourself. I smiled and turned, walking back out into the department store.

Freddy, a handsome guy in college that worked in the men's department moved toward me with wide eyes. This place is a madhouse. These people are insane.

Welcome to Christmas, my friend. I patted his back and glanced over to the men's clothing section. What happened? Someone after you?

Yes. I asked some guy if he wanted a shorter pair of slacks and you would have thought I slapped his grandmother and kicked a kitten in front of him. The pants are bunched up around his ankles. How was I to know he has issues with his height? Freddy rolled his eyes and ducked beside me. There he comes. Save me.

I turned to the rather crimson-faced man that walked toward me with intensity.

Do you work here?

Depends. What do you need? I gave him a smile that would please the angels.

What? He stopped short. People had no sense of adventure.

What can I do for you, Sir? I crossed my arms over my chest and wished that the floor would open up and swallow me whole. I needed a different job. Something where there was no interaction with people.

I want to file a complaint. He glanced around as sweat beaded on his thick forehead. How he was hot was beyond me. It was freezing in the store thanks to people milling about at the doors. I'd already politely told three ladies and their unruly children to get in and out, but not to hang about. It was a Cat in the Hat moment for sure.

You're in luck. I'm the manager of the complaint department. I pulled a pad from my back pocket. Tell me what happened.

He proceeded to tell me how horrid Freddy was, and that he should be fired immediately.

I nodded and finished writing nothingness on the pad. Got it. I'll call him in, cut off his toes, punch him in the face and send him packing. Good enough?

What? No. That's inhumane.

No, trying to get someone fired a week before Christmas because you have issues about being tall enough to reach the freezer on your refrigerator is inhumane. Get out of here and don't trip on your pants legs. The tooth fairy takes off this time of year. I turned my back on him and walked to the break room.

I hated the holidays with a passion, or maybe it was just the people. Perhaps both.

*

Hey crabby girl. I turned as Jason walked toward my register.

I hope you're buying something, because this isn't a walk-up conversation line. I lifted my eyebrow at him.

He laid a pretty silver heart necklace on the counter and a golden one that was similar next to it. Which do you think says, I like you a lot?

I glanced at the two of them as foreign emotions pounded my insides. He was kissing Lizzy and now the idiot wanted me to help him pick out her necklace. I took them in my hands and lifted them, trying to see which would be tighter on her perfect throat. Choking her was out of the realm of possibilities, but if her necklace did it... well...?

The silver is prettier. I shrugged.

I agree. I got this one from my mother years ago. He pulled a small silver cross from his neck. Good memories.

I leaned in and smiled. Nice. You should put this one around your neck so you don’t lose it. I know how you are.

He laughed and pulled out his wallet, handed me his credit card. You almost off?

Another twenty minutes, but I'm good. You don't need to worry about me, Jason. I already have a big brother, remember?

He flinched and nodded. I know that. No need to be mean.

I'm sorry, I mumbled, truly not wanting to be a jerk toward him, but unsure of why he was still holding tight to his lies where Lizzy was concerned. I hadn't said anything to Brent simply because it seemed childish to do so. Brent was over the girl and if Jason wanted to date her, I knew he would talk it out with my brother.

It's all good. He reached across the counter and touched my arm. I'm going to that party on Friday night, but I need someone to go with me. Come hang out with me?

A lady behind Jason cleared her throat as if agitated. I looked around him and smiled.

There's a water fountain down the hall, or if you just really put some ump into it, you can swallow that mess right on down. I shrugged and turned back to Jason.

His lip lifted in a smile. You're so damn ridiculous. How do you even have a job?

I'm cute? I rang up the necklace and gave him the receipt.

Yes. You're incredibly cute. He signed it and slid it back across the counter. Come with me. I want to spend some time away from Brent and you know he's not going Friday.

Are we talking about Lizzy's party? My stomach rolled with sickness.

Yes.

I wasn't invited. I winked. Thanks for the purchase, Sir. Now, move it along.

I'm inviting you, Jess.

Not interested, but thanks. Talk to you later, playboy. I reached out and pushed at his shoulder. Choking woman... you're up next on the Price is Right.

Jason stood there for a minute, but I ignored him. I didn't need a pity invite to the largest party of the holidays. I'd never been invited before, and I wasn't really invited this year. So what. Their loss.

I've been waiting for ten minutes. The lady in front of me slung her clothes on the counter angrily.

And people are waiting in line for water in Africa for weeks. I tossed the clothes behind me onto the floor. These are all on hold for another happy Christmas shopper. Move on out.

She stared incredulously, and Jason chuckled, walking away and leaving me with crazy. It was a fun day of events for sure.

After another hour of putting people in their places, I walked out of the mall and let out a long sigh.

Jessie. The new kid from school jogged up and reached for me about the time my foot hit a sheet of black ice. I slid toward him and thankfully he caught me.

That could've been ugly, I grumbled and pulled gently away from him.

It's December. It's always ugly during this time of the year. He smiled.

Right? I've been trying to tell everyone that this month is cursed for years.

It is. He nodded toward the parking lot. How are you getting home?

I have my brother's car. I glanced around. Why are you here?

It's almost Christmas and I have nothing to give my family. I'm here to shop unfortunately. Snowflakes danced around him as I narrowed my eyes, realizing that my lack of sleep was catching up on me.

Right, well... have fun with that. I smiled and walked toward Brent's car.

Jessie. How about that burger tomorrow after school? I don't bite. I promise.

I glanced over my shoulder, taking him in and realizing how handsome he was. Yeah, I guess it would be okay. I mean really... what could happen?

Exactly. He gave me a smile that left me convinced of the opposite, but I shrugged it off.

It was a burger. The worse I could accidentally do was burn the place down. I would just stay out of the kitchen.

Chapter 6

The tinsel is hung,

And the tree is so bright.

Only seven days until Christmas,

What an incredulous fright.

I couldn't eject Jack from my thoughts. Seeing him the day before had been a bit of a surprise, but knowing that someone else felt like I did was comforting.

Jessie? My mother stuck her head in the open door of my room. Time to get up.

Can't I just stay here? I curled up on my side and gave her my best 'save me from this life' look.

No, silly girl. Finals are this week, and even though you're brilliant like your dad was... you still need to apply yourself. She walked in and sat down on the bed next to me.

Do you still miss Dad? It was a dumb question, but somehow it was comforting to know that I didn't suffer alone every Christmas. If Brent and my mother missed my father, I couldn't tell it. They were either healed completely from the loss, or knew how to keep their facade locked tightly in place.

Every day of my life, baby. She brushed my hair back and smiled sadly down at me. But... he would not want you to rush through the holidays and hate every minute of it. Christmas was his favorite time of the year. Remember?

Yeah, but it's hard. I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling. It seems like crap happens every December to me and no one else.

She turned, lay beside me and snuggled up against my shoulder. Like what? We all have stuff that hits us during the year. It's not just December.

Feels like it is. I turned to face her and smiled, feeling all of five again. This year my car has broken down, I haven't been invited to any parties, Jason likes another girl and my job sucks.

Your car is a piece of junk that I'll be replacing next year when my bonus comes in. You hate parties and have said no to them for so long that it's not a wonder in the world why you're not invited. Jason doesn't know you like him, or he would be groveling at your feet, and jobs suck, especially at Christmas when so many people are out.

Can't you just leave me in my funk? It's tradition.

She laughed. It's getting old. Do you remember that story I told you when you were a little girl?

The one about Santa dropping turds into my stocking? I gave a cheeky grin.

Jessie! That's disgusting.

Brent used to tell me that all the time. I laughed and brushed my hand down my face.

I'll be talking to that boy. I have no clue where you guys get your vulgarity from. It's not from my side of the family. She shook her head and reached out, brushing more of my hair behind my ear. The one about Jack Frost.

It's just a silly story, Mom. I rolled onto my back and lifted my arms in the air.

Is it? Because it seems to hold true to me. She got up and patted my shoulder. Either way, I love you and you need to get going.

Yes, ma'am, I grumbled and eventually got up, catching a ride with my mother to school.

The story of Jack Frost was faintly in the back of my mind, but like most Christmas traditions, it was a silly story about letting things go and keeping your heart free of the icy hold of poor old Jack Frost.

He's as real as Santa for sure. I rolled my eyes and glanced to my left to see Jason jogging up.

Hey. You look good. He reached for my backpack and pulled it from my shoulder. Let me tote this. It's weighing you down.

Thanks. I smiled, not thinking much of it.

Anytime. How was your evening? He pushed his shoulder against mine softly.

It was fine. Just an evening. I pulled the door open and walked into the school with him beside me.

Come with me Friday. Please? He stopped in front of my locker and leaned against it.

I took my backpack and shook my head. No Sir. I'm not interested in being odd-man out.

You'll be with me, Jess. It will be fun.

You need a designated driver or something? I smirked and worked to get my stuff organized for a long day of finals.

You know I'm not like that. I don't need anything. I just want you to come have fun with me.

We all want something, Jason. Ask Santa for it... I winked exaggeratedly and walked toward my classroom, not concerned with anyone's needs or wants. Not even my own.

*

My calculus final was the worst by far, but I'd studied hard for it, and felt good as I handed it in.

Mrs. Thompson glanced up at me and gave me a tight smile. See you next year, Jessie. Merry Christmas.

Yep. I turned and walked out into the hall to find Jack waiting for me. His white-blond hair was a bit disheveled, and his blue eyes were filled with adventure. Hey. You do okay on that beast?

Naw. I don't care though. He offered his arm. You promised me a burger. I want ice skating too.

I slid my arm into his, noticing how cold he was and wondering if I should offer to give him my coat.

I'm good with that, but I'll warn you now. I'm a good skater most times of the year, but it's December. I'm liable to crack my skull and ruin our fun.

Yeah, if I don't do it first. He chuckled and moved out to hold the door for me. I'll drive.

That would be good. I don't have my car back until after January, when the sun comes out and the snow melts.

He smiled and moved up beside me. So I was invited to some odd party on Friday night. Are you going?

I huffed. Was everyone invited to Lizzy's stupid party? How many times would I have to confess that I didn't get invited?

Nope. Wasn't invited.

Everyone was invited, Jessie. Come with me. We'll have fun.

I stopped just before reaching his car. No. Not everyone. I wasn't. Lizzy and I have hated each other since we were kids.

Why is that? He opened the passenger's side door.

Because... I paused, not remembering why. What had caused the end of our relationship? We were close friends as kids.

Because she was mean to you? Hateful, and now works to make you look stupid? He asked, tilting his head to the side. The snowflakes I'd seen the day before fluttered around him again.

Yeah. That's why. I got into his car and buckled up, not feeling so sure about hating Lizzy. She was a jerk, but what had started it? I honestly

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