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  • Michele Pollock Dalton

Excerpt from "Long to Belong"

Hey again! I hope you are enjoying the sample chapters.


Being a part of the "Hearts, Homes & Holidays" charity anthology has been an amazing experience. And, I've gotten to know eight other terrific authors as part of the process.


Today, I am sharing a bit from T.C. Hester's story "Long to Belong."



Long to Belong

by T.C. Hester


Chapter One


I can picture tomorrow’s news feed now: “Man Freezes to Death in Front of Bountiful Blueberry while Mustering the Courage to Enter.”


There’s a jolly Christmas story. No less than I deserve.


Here in Sycamore Hill, Missouri, the temperature is hovering in the thirties, but my palms are sweaty. The cashmere-lined Italian leather gloves I’m sporting aren’t the culprit. This is all nerves.


I want to propose.


That’s enough to have my nerves pinging SOS all up and down my spine. But, Katie Reed’s the one for me. The one I never thought I’d meet, and I want to take the next step in our relationship. After all, it’s Christmastime—the perfect time for her to find a small, square jewelry box in her stocking.


If she’ll have me.


We get along like cinnamon and sugar, complementary, better together. Trouble is, what she views as me being adorably shy and quirky—her words—isn’t the case. I need to tell her the truth, hopefully today, before I can ask her to be mine. It’s a vital piece of info for her to understand before entering with me into the holy state of matrimony.


I peer through the window to where she’s standing behind the counter, greeting customers, taking their orders, laughing with their kids. She works hard to make everyone feel welcome in her shop.


Katie’s good at that. Has built a business on it, which is no mean feat. And as a venture capitalist, I should know.


Inside the town’s favorite coffee shop, people are toasty warm and smiling, doing whatever normal people do around the holidays. Children bounce in their seats or scurry around the cozy shop while parents try to herd them. I can’t help but cringe at kids’ lack of inhibition, their natural love of life. Just watching the chaos nudges my sensory-overload meter toward the red zone.


A-a-n-n-n-d…here we go. Two kids bash into each other. One kid runs to his mother; the other holds his head and starts howling. I’ve got the same feeling. The only difference between that kid and me is that I can usually keep my howling private.


Yeah, okay, I should just turn around and leave. Voluntarily plunging into that swirling vat of crazy makes about as much sense as that polar bear swim people do to usher in the new year. I don’t need to buy a coffee that bad to start my day. Making money for my clients revs me plenty.


But I’ve promised Katie I’d come by at least once a day. At first, it was just to say hi. Then it was to hold each other’s hand. Eventually, we started exchanging a quick kiss. That’s what I usually come for. Today I want that, plus a few minutes’ private conversation.


The door opens, and a bundled-up couple bumps me on their way out. “Oh, sorry, buddy!” the man says, holding the door for me.


I manage a “Thanks.” It’s the learned, polite response, but I’m not feeling overly thankful. In fact, my frozen feet want to turn and run back to my car. The Keurig in my quiet, ordered office is calling to me.


With a chin nod at the man still holding open the door, I propel myself through it and pause for a mental checklist. Suited up in my finest black wool topcoat over my favorite charcoal-gray three-piece suit? Check. Aviator shades to protect me from unwanted interactions with others? Check. As a final precaution, I stuff earbuds into both ears. I can still hear conversation, but they stop the flow of piped-in Christmas carols from taking over my brain. Check-check.


Ready as I’ll ever be, my foot takes its first step on my personal green mile to Katie.


She hasn’t seen me yet.


I need her to look up and give me that smile.


The one that makes me feel owned. Wanted.


That’s the only thing that will make the trip inside a busy coffee shop worthwhile.


I focus on her instead of my growing unease at the touch of strangers as I dodge patrons to get in line. Katie dons different headgear each day in December. Yesterday she wore a gray Mrs. Claus wig. I wasn’t a fan. But she was having so much fun, I couldn’t complain.


What’s she got on her head today? A red-and-green-striped stocking cap? The cap’s cute on her, but I miss seeing a messy knot of dark brown hair on top of her head. But that’s Katie. Christmas was made for her. She wouldn’t be Katie if she didn’t get into the joy of the season.


Of course, I could see her a lot better if it weren’t for the guy in line ahead of me.


He’s leaning over the counter toward Katie—closer than I like. She’s wearing her wooden smile. The one she dons when she’s being super-professional. My protective instincts rouse, and I slip the buds from my ears.


“…cow juice. Not some hippy-dippy non-dairy substitute. I just want plain ol’ half-n-half in my morning Joe. Is that too much to ask for in this one-horse town?”


“We offer plant-based choices here.” Katie’s voice is still upbeat, though her smile is strained.


“Is there somewhere else close to the hotel to get a regular cup of coffee with cream?” the man sneers.


Strained smile turns to fixed, and hazel eyes sparkle dangerously. “Certainly, sir. On your way out of town, you’ll see any number of them.” She flashes him her pat smile again.


I’m glad she’s not giving him her happy smile. The one that draws patrons into her shop and keeps them coming back for more of her healthy baked goods, protein smoothies, and herbal drinks. I’m especially glad she’s not giving him the smile that eases the tightness in my jaw, that relaxes me like Mozart on loop.


“Mark!” she exclaims, looking past the brute to me. The tension melts from her face. “Good morning! I’ll be right with you.”


There it is. The smile she saves for me. Its effect is headier than a shot of espresso.


My heart swells, then answers her smile-just-for-me with its beat-just-for-her - my Katie heart-song.


The man glances over his shoulder at what’s distracting the barista he’s been hassling. His face is the angry emoji on my phone, red and aggressive. I don’t want to be near him. And I don’t want him near Katie. Who hassles Mrs. Claus or Santa’s elves?


Experience has taught me that this is a time to use my linebacker size and shape to my advantage. I step closer. It makes the guy undrape the counter, away from Katie, at least.


“Back up, buddy.” His bark makes me wince.


I rarely look anybody in the eye, and even then, not for long. But my attention swings from Katie to the bully, and I aim my mirrored aviators directly at him, forcing myself to hold even though anxiety sizzles my insides. I manage a grunt to acknowledge his comment.


The man does a double-take and jerks back. Then he swallows - his Adam’s apple bobs, visible in spite of his pudgy neck.


“Your coffee is on the house today, sir,” Katie says, claiming the moment. “And here’s a holiday treat for your trouble.” She hands him a sack printed with the Bountiful Blueberries logo.


She’s giving him one of her pastries? He doesn’t deserve it.


“Do you need directions back to the highway?” she asks.


The man grabs the bag and mutters something incoherent. It’s definitely not “Thank you.”


“Happy holidays,” Katie trills.


Avoiding me, he ducks out of line to the front door. When it closes behind him with a gust of frigid air, a smattering of applause filters through the shop.


Katie leans over the counter and reaches up to hug me. “Thank you!”


The pressure of her arms helps control my internal storm. I sneak a glance to the left and right.

Lots of eyes are on us. My gut roils, limits stretched to breaking.


“I need to get out of here,” I whisper.


Her happy smile fades as she scans my face. “Jackie,” she calls over her shoulder, “can you take over here for a sec? I want to thank Mark properly.”


The few cheers and “oohs” prickle all over my skin, underneath the heavy winter clothing. I refuse to let it defeat me. At least, not here, not now, in public.


“Come on,” Katie says, stepping around the counter to hook her arm in mine.


*****

Intrigued? It's a terrific story, and you can read the rest of it along with eight others - all for #99cents if you pick the book up before 11/2/2021.


 

And, if you are looking for more great reads, they are everywhere! This particular group runs the gamut of romance from sweet to spicy. So, if you are looking for a new book boyfriend, check them out here.

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