Writing stuff

The Wish List – Chapter One

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving / first day of Chanukah / Thursday in November. Sorry to keep bombarding you with nothing but book-related stuff over the past few posts, but I won’t have time for anything else until December 6th. So, if book stuff is lame stuff for you, please stay tuned.

I know there are at least a few people who have been waiting for me to post an excerpt of The Wish List, and I do apologize for the delay in getting it out here for you, but, without further ado, the first chapter in its entirety.

Be warned, it is a lot of chapter.

* * * * *

Chapter 1 – American Thanksgiving – 29 Days ‘Til Christmas

One should never underestimate the mind-altering effects of sugar, tryptophan and copious amounts of alcohol. This was something Kelsie remembered every fourth Thursday morning of November when she was loading festive food and paraphernalia into her car. By the time she was halfway through her first overloaded plate of turkey and trimmings, though, her thoughts of moderation tended to come in moderation, so she could manage to avoid the hangover, but not the bursts of creative madness that tended to come from a day of overindulgence with her intimate six.

Some of the most asinine ideas her friends ever had came in the stupor that occurred sometime between eight and ten p.m. each American Thanksgiving.

Some of the most brilliant too.

It was mid-cranberry jello shot one year that Brian suddenly perked up with his idea for the pet ornament – like the pet rock, but a seasonal inanimate object people could pretend was alive and had affection for them. Pleasantly tipsy, they had all indulged this “genius” until the next day when, sober, the pet ornament seemed like a stupid idea to everyone but Brian. In the end, though, his dedication was justified when the pet ornament was fad enough the following holiday season to treat them all to New Year’s in Aruba.

A trip that required a Christmas night departure, Kelsie’s mom claimed to be fine with it at the time. She didn’t really let it go, though, until Kelsie repented with a three-night pilgrimage to her old bedroom in the middle of March for no reason at all, other than for her mom to make her pancakes every morning and hug her at random intervals without warning.

Of course, even her mother recognized that Kelsie had two families, the one into which she was born and the one she formed at school when pressure, late nights, and the terror of impending adulthood created a nearly unnatural bond. She had even adopted them for a time, providing them a place of refuge when their families were too far or too infuriating. Part necessity, part kismet, Kelsie had given her heart to Melissa, Kip and Doug years before any of them fell for anyone else.

It was bound to happen, though. Two gays, two straights, none of them romantically compatible, they had to fall outside their circle eventually. Though, oddly enough, external parties only seemed to fortify their original foundation, instead of disbanding it.

There were no Yokos.

Watching late-addition Ashley fall into her husband’s appreciative lap and kiss him soundly, Kelsie remembered how surprising it was when Doug found someone in his early twenties. An unapologetic player who, quite literally, lived by the motto, “Youth is the time to explore all channels,” none of them expected him to give into forever until he had probed every channel he could find. So to speak.

“Oh, Kels,” Ashley sunk contentedly back against Doug’s chest, slapping his hand as he tried to maneuver it beneath her shirt. “We have to find you someone. We need to find her someone,” she repeated to her husband, sighing in over-dramatized pity at Kelsie, as if she was just the saddest thing.

“Yeah, Kels,” Doug agreed with his wife. Doug always agreed with his wife. “You’re such a catch. Why are you still single?”

“Am I single?” she asked, juvenilely satisfied when Doug’s gaze narrowed in drunken confusion.

“Yeah, you’re totally single,” he replied, but glanced around the room for a phantom girlfriend just in case.

Ever since Melissa wrapped Jay up in an elopement-style ceremony at Niagara Falls that was more like a bawdy celebration of their last vestiges of youth than holy matrimony, Kelsie hadn’t just become more noticeably single to her friends. She had become their new project, the ‘pet ornament’ of the year.

“She’s too picky,” Melissa raised her dirty blonde head from picking lint off her husband’s intentionally-ugly sweater on the couch nearby to throw in her unsolicited two cents.

“What are we talking about?” Brian asked, coming back into the room with Kip and coffees that Kelsie thought were meant to start taking the edge off until she took the first sip and found the java-to-liquor ratio unfavorable to the regaining of her faculties.

“Why Kelsie doesn’t have a girlfriend,” Jay informed them, as if the topic of conversation ever changed. Kelsie would swear on a million bibles, her mother’s life and the cutest of puppies that her love life was all they had talked about since Melissa and Jay got back from their honeymoon.

“Oh,” Brian’s face wrinkled as he finished the distribution of the coffees and leaned the empty tray against an end table. “Maybe she’s just too busy.”

Kelsie smiled at him for coming to her defense.

“Or maybe she’s using that as an excuse,” Kip hardened his husband’s reasoning.

“She is hot, though,” Doug declared. “Come on, you really can’t find any woman who wants a piece of all that?”

As Doug motioned to all the parts of Kelsie he considered highly-appealing, Ashley only smirked her agreement, more amused by her husband’s behavior than bothered by it.

“He does have a point,” Melissa took Doug’s side as they all would in the end, and Kelsie prepared for the united front of the recently-espoused against her bastion of romantic freedom. “I mean, that piece I had was pretty tasty.”

“You two?” Doug was roused so quickly to attention, he nearly dumped his wife on the floor. “Oh, of course you did. All that time alone in your apartment, both being all sexy. How could you not? Oh my God, that is so hot.”

“It is also untrue,” Kelsie stated, sending an irritated glare toward Melissa. “Why would you tell him that?” Like they could have conceivably done any such thing without Doug and Kip knowing about it at the time.

Melissa had zero justification aside from her own humor, which was clear on her face, as Doug looked between them, trying to decide who was telling him the truth. “Someone else talk,” he uttered. “I forgot what I was saying.”

“What I think Doug’s trying to express in his own crass way,” Ashley translated her husband, “is, are you even trying?”

“You know I’m trying,” Kelsie countered. God knew, she couldn’t date in private. If she ever met a woman without a million immediate questions and twelve hands pushing her toward the altar, it would be a miracle. “What is this?” she added, not sure if she was asking about their holiday attack or the extremely potent drink she’d been given as she lifted it to her lips. “Does it hurt you all somehow that I’m single?”

“Does it hurt you?” Kip came to rest on the arm of the chair with too much confidence in its build. As it tilted precariously on two legs, Kelsie watched the quasi-coffee slosh in her cup and thought they were all going over, until Kip’s absurdly strong legs pushed them back with a thump she was shocked didn’t break the chair in two. “Seeing the rest of us leaving with someone,” he didn’t miss a beat, “while you go home to your empty condo?”

Tossing a look toward Brian, Kelsie silently begged him to come fetch his husband. “Why did you let him go back for a psych degree?”

“He wants to help people,” Brian looked adoringly at Kip, too love-dumb to recognize him as the menace he was. “Besides, look at that handsome face. Could you say ‘no’ to him?”

Of course, Kelsie couldn’t say ‘no’ to him. She couldn’t say ‘no’ to any of them. That was the biggest part of her problem. These people were her kryptonite, and she went willingly into their debilitating embraces on regular occasion.

“He wants to revel in people’s psychoses,” she argued.

“That too,” Brian acknowledged.

“Seriously, though…” Kip decided redistributing his weight was the best way to keep them from tipping, and, sliding his arm over the top of the chair, he hovered over Kelsie like a sadistic angel. “Your core group of friends are all paired up with each other. Then, there’s you. That has to make you feel like an outsider. A seventh wheel.”

“On what?” Kelsie countered. “A cargo van?”

“Maybe she’s like the spare,” Doug found his brain again. “And I will just say right now, Kels, if anything happens to me, I give you permission to fully take care of any and all of Ashley’s needs.”

“Why wait?” Ashley added to her husband’s great pleasure.

When Doug looked hopefully to Kelsie, she shook her head with due adamancy. “I am not doing that,” she stated. Though, she had to admit to herself, if things continued as they had been going in her attempts to meet the right woman, she may well be desperate enough in a few years time to borrow her friend’s beautiful black-haired, mocha-skinned wife for the occasional fix.

“Do you feel like that, Kels?” Melissa thought she was helping as she abandoned Jay on the couch to plop on the other arm of Kelsie’s chair. Fleetingly wondering about its weight limit, Kelsie lost her chance to escape the precarious seat when Melissa’s hand came to rest on her shoulder, the squeeze of her long, determined fingers feeling more like incarceration than comfort. “Like you’re the spare?”

“No, I really don’t,” Kelsie responded.

“Well, we certainly don’t see you that way,” Brian came forward to assert, and it made Kelsie wonder if it was, in fact, how they saw her. She imagined them lying in bed at night, in their separate sets, pillow-talking about it. Oh, mustn’t it be depressing to be Kelsie, bolted in on the underside of the chassis, getting pelted by rocks and dirt slung up at her, as we all move forward in perfect harmony toward wonderful future destinations?

“What are you waiting for exactly?” Melissa questioned. “You have dated some very nice women.”

“Hot women,” Doug interjected. “Some hot, hot women.”

“Yes,” Kelsie acknowledged. “I have dated some nice women, I have dated some hot women. I have dated women so insane, Kip would love to get his mind-meld on them, and some almost normal.” Grateful suddenly for the spirits in her cup, she imbibed a hearty swallow that failed to make her friends go away.

“And?” Ashley questioned from Doug’s lap.

“And what?”

“Why did you decide against the almost normal ones?” Ashley went on. “Assuming some of the almost normal ones were also some of the hot and-or nice ones.”

“I didn’t decide against them,” Kelsie countered. “I just couldn’t imagine a future with any of them. Who knows why?”

That was the real deal. Her first quarter-century-going-on-thirties had been a rather pain-free existence. She wasn’t riddled with issues. There had been no great drama inhibiting her love life. She had just never found anyone quite… enough. And she frankly thought it a little unfair the way they ganged up on her when she knew damn well they were all only off the market because they had each found someone who was more than enough.

“Brian burps in his sleep,” Kip’s sudden announcement was both gross and unexpected, and Kelsie got a face full of boozy breath as she looked over at him and discovered his hovering had only come closer. “Burps,” he reiterated. “In his sleep.”

Not sure why she was being enlightened to said fact, Kelsie glanced toward the nocturnal belcher. “I’m sorry to hear that, Brian. Maybe it’s a digestive problem?”

“Kip talks to his dead grandmother,” Brian declared, catching onto his husband’s train of thought much quicker than Kelsie. “It’s really freaky.”

“Melissa watches reruns of game shows and pretends she knows the answers,” Jay said.

“Yes, I know.” Kelsie bitterly recalled the twenty bucks lost to Melissa in college before she became aware of the bizarre, yet clearly lucrative, habit.

“You also know what’s wrong with him,” Ashley said, patting her carnally-predisposed husband on his muscle-bound chest.

“Ash wears two pair of underwear in the winter,” Doug complained in retaliation. “Regular panties, then boy shorts.”

“Probably as a barrier,” Melissa snorted her coffee.

“That’s not true, Honey. You know I just don’t like my bits cold,” Ashley appeased Doug, before looking toward Melissa in wide-eyed affirmation.

“Jay pulls the wings off butterflies!” Melissa realized she might miss her chance to share one of her husband’s less-desirable traits, and all movement in the room came to a truly horrified standstill.

“I do NOT do that,” Jay stated firmly.

“No,” Melissa admitted. “But he does sneeze into his hand and wipe it on his pants.”

“I do do that,” Jay confirmed.

“Well, fantastic,” Kelsie stated when their gazes returned to her, as if, between the six of them, they had made an indisputable argument. “Thank you for all of that information I would rather not know about you. Is there a point to any of this?”

“Yes,” Kip pushed up, adjusting his glasses on his nose and trying to find a position of authority on the arm of the chair. “The point is everyone has faults. Bizarre, gross, annoying, inherently unsexy faults. No one’s perfect, Kels.”

“I know no one is perfect,” Kelsie straightened in defense. “I am far from perfect.”

“That’s true,” Kip responded.

“You don’t have to agree.” Kelsie resisted the urge to push him off the arm of the chair due only to its precarious balance and the knowledge Melissa didn’t have the lower body strength to keep them from tipping the other direction. “I’m not looking for perfection. I’m just… I’m looking for…” Sighing as she realized she didn’t know why none of the women she’d dated in the past didn’t feel right to her, she knew it was a mistake to admit defeat, but there was nothing else she could do. “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”

“THAT is your problem,” Melissa suddenly thought herself an expert too. “You have to have some idea of what you want, or how will you know when you find it?”

“Well, I don’t,” Kelsie grumbled.

“Kels,” Doug was suddenly almost serious, and Kelsie released a frustrated sigh as she looked to him. “You don’t have to know what you want exactly, but you do have to have some idea of what you need to be happy. Like I’m a hound, right?”

“So say half the alums of U of T,” Kelsie defensively replied, grimacing at the slip and flicking her gaze to Ashley. “Sorry, Ash.”

“It’s all right,” she returned with all the confidence of a woman who could handle being married to Doug. “I know all about his record, on and off the ice.”

“But now…” Doug rushed to proclaim the sanctity of his marriage. “Now, I’m all bark and no bite. I knew that would always be me, though, and I would have to find someone who would put up with that.”

“And, miraculously, you did,” Kelsie grinned at the wonder of it all.

“Better in the open where I can see it,” Ashley reasoned, scratching her fingers along Doug’s scalp. “That way I can pull him back by his leash when he gets out of hand.” When she gave his short light brown hair a sharp tug for emphasis, Doug groaned in anything but pain, and Kelsie felt over-informed as to how they made things work so well.

“Why don’t you just let us pick someone for you?” Melissa suggested, and Kelsie’s laugh came so fast and raucous, it was almost painful.

“No, thank you.”

“You don’t trust us?” Melissa sounded truly wounded, and Kelsie knew she had reached her usual alcohol-induced pouty stage. “We did all right for ourselves.”

“Yes, you did,” Kelsie admitted. In fact, she wasn’t sure how they could have done better. “But you do have a tendency to think what you want is what I want when that’s not necessarily the case.”

“But you don’t know what you want,” Brian reminded her, lifting his coffee cocktail to his  lips for a victorious drink.

“He does have a point there,” Jay agreed, and Melissa smiled at her husband in a way that indicated taking their side when he didn’t have to say anything was a very wise, and would prove a very rewarding, decision.

Maybe they were right, Kelsie acknowledged, but only in her head where they couldn’t use her agreement to plot. Maybe it was her problem. Maybe she needed to really think about what she wanted. She wasn’t going to create some kind of dream-mate checklist, though, a set of criteria against which she compared every person she met. After all, the six people currently circled around her, telling her how pitiful, lonely, and imperfect she was, couldn’t be more different, and, for reasons that escaped her at that moment, she was enamored with all of them.

“All right.” She knew she had to put an end to their match-making notion before they overruled her on her own life. “I love you guys, and you have, I admit, shown a true knack for finding quality partners. However, if you would take a moment from your self-congratulating to remember, you have all set me up in the past. With most of the crazy people. Remember, that woman Jay set me up with a year ago stabbed me in the hand with a pocket knife when I tried to pick up the bill at dinner.”

“She thought she was being romantic,” Melissa tried to reason away crazy. “She didn’t want you to pay.”

“I thought it wasn’t the knife.” Brian thought the details made a difference. “It was only the little scissors.”

“I had to get four stitches!”

“Yeah, sorry about that.” Jay, at least, had the decency to feel some remorse. “She didn’t seem insane at work.”

“Well, there you go,” Kelsie raised her mug to him. “It’s really kind of hard to know until you have an inch of steel embedded in the fleshy part between your thumb and index finger. So, as much as I appreciate you all caring, and I do,” she stated directly to Melissa, hoping she could prevent the next stage in her best friend’s intoxication, the flood of baseless tears, “if I’m going to ask someone to just drop a woman on my doorstep, I think I would rather ask Santa.”

It was meant to be a firm testament as to how much she did not want them pushing some stranger upon her. It was not meant to be a suggestion.

“Oh my God, that’s brilliant,” Ashley took it as such anyway, so enthused with the idea she bounced and spilled coffee in Doug’s lap. Hissing at first, like any normal person, Doug settled into a satisfied grin, determining he liked the scald. “You should ask Santa.”

She should have kept her mouth shut, that’s what she should have done. Not sure where exactly to begin with that, Kelsie fell back on the adult-life mainstay of disenchantment. “You do know Santa isn’t real, right?” she asked.

“You shut your mouth.” Brian was dead serious.

“I like this idea,” Melissa’s mood brightened as she joined in on their folly.

“Can you do something for them?” Kelsie looked to Kip for help, ending up on her own again as he shook his head.

“I think they’re onto something,” he said.

“God, you are going to mess up so many people,” she foretold.

“Not because I think Santa is going to bring you the perfect woman,” Kip explained himself. “But because it will help you figure out what you do want. You know, since you have no idea.”

Six against one, Kelsie knew it was a losing battle and gave up trying to make them see they were all out of their inebriated minds. “Yeah, all right,” she uttered to end the debate. “I’ll think about that.”

“Do it now,” Melissa ordered.

“No,” Kelsie returned.

“Why not?” Doug asked, but before Kelsie could come up with a good excuse – instead of telling them the truth that she wasn’t particularly in the mood for soul-searching, and, even if she was, she wouldn’t willfully reveal her innermost workings in front of them when they already knew way more about her than they should, or would ever need to, know – Ashley jumped to her feet.

“We’ll do it for you,” she declared, rushing from the room on an apparent mission.

Her sudden departure taking him by surprise, Doug whirled for cover, grabbing a book from the end table and dropping it into his lap, as if anyone in the room wasn’t already aware he was hiding an erection beneath his wife. Doug spent eighty percent of his life hiding an erection, and the other twenty with one proudly on display.

“Please, don’t,” Kelsie pointlessly called after Ashley, but, seconds later, Ashley was returning to the room with a notebook, a pen, and a commitment to the cause.

“Dear Santa…” she started to write before she even crouched by the table next to Doug, turning it into her temporary letter-writing desk.

“My name is Kelsie,” Brian began the dictation. “I’m twenty-eight years old, and I’m single.”

“Frowny face,” Melissa added with glee.

“Wow.” Kelsie attempted to down the rest of her coffee, before accepting, with some frustration, it was still too hot. “Please, never sum me up again.”

“The first step is to admit you have a problem.” Kip was still on her like an overbearing parent, and it at last occurred to Kelsie what was happening. It wasn’t dinner. It wasn’t celebration. It was intervention. She had been lured into her own intervention by companionship, booze, and the promise of pie.

Realizing, in the next instant, she would follow Jay’s choco-coconut dream pie to her own doom, Kelsie made an effort to go claim the rest of it while they were distracted. When both Kip and Melissa’s hands held her prisoner in the chair, she growled beneath her breath and tried to come up with an adequate insult.

“That’s what you’ve got?” she shot at Kip. “The same textbook psychology from every twelve-step program? And I don’t have a problem. You all clearly have a problem.”

“Up through the Victorian era,” Brian interjected, “you would have been considered a spinster.”

“Up until the Victorian era,” Kelsie countered, “they would have hung me at the gallows right between the two of you. Thank God for progress, eh?”

“Okay,” Ashley was all business as she ordered them back to the subject at hand. “Now seriously, you guys, this is it. This is an official letter to Santa. We have to make it good.” For some reason, that actually focused everyone’s attention, as if whatever went into the Santa-letter would somehow alter reality. “Now,” Ashley pinned Kelsie with an unwavering gaze, “what do you want, Kels?”

What Kelsie wanted, more than anything, was to open her mouth and let loose a stream of traits that would make up the perfect woman, just to prove to them they didn’t know everything. Parting her lips to backtalk, though, she realized she had nothing to say. If she started listing, it wouldn’t take long for them to realize she had dated a few women who came awfully close to meeting all criteria and she still hadn’t fallen in love with any of them. Clearly, something was missing from her so-called checklist, which made the entire list moot.

“A babe,” Doug declared, and, apparently accepting that they were going to have to take up the task if she refused to participate, Ashley put pen to paper.

“I would like a pretty…”

“Sexy,” Doug insisted.

“I’ll put it in parentheses,” Ashley said.

“Blonde,” Doug added. “She’s done her share of blondes.”

“For the love of God,” Kelsie declared, wondering if it was time to cut ties with the people who knew her in college when she did just about anything. “If you’re going to do this to me, could someone at least bring me pie?”

“A pretty (sexy) blonde,” Ashley summarized.

“With huge boobs.” Brian mimed a breast size more frightening than appealing.

“Whose fantasy is this?” Kelsie asked. “Not huge. Just sufficient.” If they were insistent on doing it, they were at least going to get it right.

“A great smile,” Ashley said.

“A good body,” Melissa added.

“With a tight little ass, perfect for spankin’.” Doug felt the need to demonstrate, reaching around the end table to give his wife’s a hearty smack. “Trust me, you don’t want to live without that.”

“Maybe kind of exotic?” Ashley suggested.

“Perhaps, we should dig just a little deeper,” Kip, thankfully, reasoned.

“Listen to him,” Kelsie said. “Santa don’t like shallow.”

A second later, appearing before her, like a beacon of all things good and beautiful about the holiday season, Jay held out a small plate, and Kelsie accepted the offering with all the affection she was currently withholding from her other friends.

“Thank you, Jay,” she sighed. “I love you the most.” And, grinning, he was relocated to the other side of his wife as Melissa pushed him out of the way.

“Smart,” Melissa stated, and, considerably less annoyed as she tucked her coffee cup dangerously between her leg and the side of the chair, Kelsie nodded her agreement around a bite of pie.

“With a good sense of humor,” Ashley stated.

“Rich?” Still novel enough to have the courtesy to make it a question – and to bring her pie upon request – Kelsie pre-regretted the day Jay was deeply-embedded enough to torture her like everyone else.

“If it comes with the package,” she replied.

“Someone who cares about the world,” Brian stated, and Kelsie acknowledged that she liked the idea of someone with a global awareness, even as she, personally, cared little about anything at that moment beyond the stuffing of choco-coconut into her face and letting her friends get their current caper out of their overstimulated systems.

“Any specific sex acts we should mention?” Doug asked.

Clearing the remnants of pie from her palate, Kelsie swallow-scoffed. “No, Doug,” she replied. “I don’t think that would be appropriate in a letter to Santa, do you?”

Settling back with a small huff of his own, Doug lifted his mug to his lips. “You’d be surprised by some of the stuff I asked Santa for as a kid.”

“Doubt it,” Melissa’s and Kip’s voices responded in stereo.

“Okay, that should be good,” Ashley reasoned. “We’ve covered all the major bases.”

And, though the list seemed rather general, it wasn’t entirely off-target, and Kelsie was just glad to be done as Ashley finished up the last of the letter in silence.

“Let’s hear it,” Kip requested when at last she dropped her pen.

“All right,” Ashley replied, getting to her feet and clearing her throat. “Dear Santa. My name is Kelsie. I’m twenty-eight years old, and I’m single. Frowny face. I would like a pretty (sexy) blonde with sufficient breasts, a great smile, a good body, maybe kind of exotic, who is smart, has a good sense of humor, may or may not be rich, and cares about the world.

“I have been very lonely,” Ashley went on to her private addition. “Sometimes, I cry myself to sleep because I want to cuddle so badly.”

“Where did that come from?” Kelsie questioned, not even the pie distraction enough from that balderdash.

“I assume,” Ashley shrugged.

“You assume wrong,” Kelsie declared.

“It doesn’t hurt to bend the truth a little,” Brian backed Ashley up.

“But won’t Santa know if we’ve been naughty?” Kelsie pulled her lore from the only reference she had on the subject.

“White lies,” Melissa played it off.

“And everyone loves a good sob story,” Jay added. “You’ve seen what those cancer kids get. Trips to Disney. Celebrity meetings.” All eyes going to him, he may as well have pulled the wings off a butterfly.

“If there is a hell, you do realize you’ve confirmed your one-way ticket there with that sentence alone, right?” Doug asked, but Jay didn’t seem all that concerned with eternal damnation.

“Now, we have to stamp it,” Ashley was singularly-focused.

“You’re going to waste a stamp on that?” Kelsie sniggered around another bite of pie, smacking Kip’s hand with her fork as he tried to steal a piece of crust that broke off on her plate.

“That’s not how you stamp a letter to Santa,” Ashley’s frustration at Kelsie’s total ignorance of the Santa-letter process was clear.

“I’m sorry, Ash,” Kelsie countered. “In all the time we’ve known each other, I never realized I was in the presence of a bona fide Santa authority.”

Pausing for only a second to cast a glare back at her, Ashley continued to where Melissa’s purse sat atop the pile of coats inside the door, walking it back to Melissa.

“Please tell me you have that vixen-red in here,” Ashley said, eyeing Melissa’s flaming lips, and Kelsie watched with reluctant intrigue as Melissa went digging.

“You know I do,” she returned, pulling her makeup bag free.

“Will you do the honors?” Ashley requested.

“Of course,” Melissa returned, handing her purse off to Ashley.

Watching their cryptic exchange, Kelsie thought she was home free until Ashley ripped the pie plate from her hand and she was forced to grab her coffee mug and pray Kip could hold them up as Melissa turned suddenly and dropped into her lap.

Straddling her into immobility, much to Doug’s vocal pleasure, Melissa wiped the crumbs from Kelsie’s lips and squeezed them into a pucker.

“I have food in my mouth,” Kelsie could barely push through the ruthless grip.

“Then stop talking, or you’ll get crumbs in your lipstick,” Melissa countered.

“I’m wearing lipstick.”

“You can’t kiss a letter to Santa in peach,” Melissa declared. “Have some respect.”

Feeling the thick layer going on, against her protests and the repulsive fact that she had half-chewed pie in her mouth, Kelsie swallowed the soggy mess when Melissa at last released her cheeks to wipe the corners of her lips with a grin.

“Perfect,” Ashley returned to shove the folded letter in front of her. “Now kiss.”

Aware that she wasn’t getting up until she did exactly as she was told, Kelsie withheld her saucy retort and puckered, pressing her lips against the folded letter and pulling back to see her vivid red kiss against the white paper.

Following the path of the letter as it departed with a grinning Ashley, Kelsie watched her slip it beneath the dancing Mrs. Santa on the mantel as Melissa and Kip at last gave her back sole possession of the chair.

“I really think this will be good for you,” Kip stated again.

“Do you?” Kelsie asked, standing to stretch and set her coffee on a table, just grateful she hadn’t ended up wearing it. “Maybe you’re right,” she told them what they wanted to hear, and that was all it took to gain access to the other side of the room without interference. “Maybe asking Santa for a girlfriend isn’t such a bad idea.”

“That’s the spirit,” Melissa happily replied.

“It really is just about being optimistic,” Kip said. “Keeping your mind open, your eyes open, and your heart open.”

“Absolutely,” Kelsie accepted his sappy, crappy advice with a smile. “I mean, who knows? Maybe the jolly old fellow keeps mail-order brides on hand for just this sort of occasion.” Finally at her destination, she could let them know what she was really thinking, and, with a streak of rebellion, she tipped Mrs. Claus onto her abetting keester and seized the letter.

“Whoa, hey!” Brian was the first, but not the last, to try to call Kelsie off her mission. “What are you doing?”

Watching them all come for her, she held up a finger as if it would keep them at bay, and it was like threatening a werewolf with a butter knife because she was out of silver bullets. “While I appreciate the sentiment,” she rushed to say, “I don’t want you all this crazy, so I’m going to destroy the evidence.”

When she made the first tear through the center of the letter, they all kicked it into high gear, and Kelsie was caught in the embrace of at least three sets of unidentified arms as she tore the rest of the letter to shreds. Throwing the confetti into the air to show them the deed was done, she felt Santa-lovin’ hearts breaking all around her as the pieces floated toward the floor.

Then, all of a sudden, the air in the room seemed to shift. Whirling and circling at their feet, the scraps she’d tossed drifted back together until Kelsie swore she could see the letter exactly as it had been before her defiant outburst, and the paper chose its own direction, zooming suddenly into the unlit fireplace and up the chute. Blinking rapidly at the spot where the letter had just been, Kelsie knew she had to be hallucinating and wondered what exactly Kip and Brian had put in that coffee.

“That was a weird gust,” she uttered when speech finally returned.

A sharp bark of nervous laughter from Ashley her first response, Doug soon joined in on his wife’s enthusiasm.

“You’re getting a girlfriend for Christmas!” he exclaimed.

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