This will be my last release for 2019!
Have you read Secretly In Love- a Madison Creek Township novella? If not, you can grab it for free everywhere. If not, don't worry. A Thousand Wishes stands on its own. Keep reading to find out.
Here's a sneak peek at what's to come...
“But I’m supposed to be most important in your life!”
Leon Jovino cringed at his girlfriend’s high-pitched whine coming through his Bluetooth.
“Not that silly cook job you’re wasting your talents on.”
He tucked the coleslaw tray against his hip. With his free hand, he yanked open the walk-in refrigerator and hurried inside before the heavy door closed on him. This was his last task before he was free for the evening.
The Lakeshore, his Uncle Melvin’s restaurant, the finest one in Madison Creek, had closed an hour ago. Most of the staff had already left. Leon volunteered to stay and get a few items for tomorrow’s menu ready before he left for the day.
“This job pays my bills and I’m happy here,” he answered in his usual bored tone. He was tired of this same discussion. “I’m learning so much from Uncle Melvin.”
While he worked, he’d listened to his girlfriend, Marcy Towers, prattle on about her busy modeling schedule. Her stage name was Merci Lace and that was what she’d insisted everyone call her, including him! She didn’t want to risk anyone accidentally calling her by her real name while they were in public.
He wished she’d give his ears a little mercy by not talking in that high-pitched baby voice she’d also started using, along with her fake name.
Lace. She thought it had a more delicate feel. Except there wasn’t anything delicate about Marcy. She was vibrant, bold, and… loud. A force to be reckoned with, so to speak.
When there was a short pause in her diatribe, he asked the only thing he really wanted to know, “When will your stint in New York be over? I had to spend Thanksgiving alone. Tell me you’ll be home for Christmas, right?”
Actually, he’d spent Thanksgiving with his old employers, the Winters. When Miss Haley found out he had no family staying in town, she’d insisted that he come and be part of theirs. To his surprise, there were several others that Haley called her, “lonesome doves” who had also been invited. A couple of them had worked at the Madison Creek B&B while he’d been the resident cook.
“Weeelllll,” Marcy hummed, “I was hoping to entice you in coming to New York. You’ll not believe what it’s like here during the holidays. The city is simply amazing. Leo…please? I’ll even buy your plane ticket.”
Oh, no way would he let his girlfriend pay for his trip. He made decent money and had been able to establish a nice-sized nest egg. Sure he could make more in a larger town, but he loved Madison Creek. And the little lakeside town was also stunning this time of year with the fresh coating of snow and each shop decorated to the hilt.
Thanks to Councilwoman Karen Borgman-Fairbanks’ prompting. She was determined to make Madison Creek a Must-See spot on everyone’s holiday bucket list.
“No, I can’t leave Uncle this time of year. We’re so busy, he’s looking to hire extra waitstaff.”
“Leeee-on!” she wailed, causing him to rip the earpiece out and hit the speaker on his phone. “I thought you loved me. This is where I need to be to further my career. I’m beyond settling for Miss Madison or the Apple Queen parades. I have a real chance to make something of my life. I’ve had a few nibbles on jobs after this one. There might be a chance that I’ll never come back.”
Leon closed the refrigerator door with his back and leaned against the cool metal for a moment. That would be unfortunate. He cared a lot about Marcy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so sure about this new Merci Lace. Their distance had cooled his feelings for her a little. Maybe if he took a few days… “I’ll think about it. If I do come, I’ll get my own ticket.”
She squealed and he jabbed the volume button down. He set the phone on the counter while he gave the stainless steel one more wiping. “I’m not making promises, got it? I’ll talk to Uncle and see if he can spare me a few days. And I’ll only come for the weekend. Is there a hotel near where you’re staying that I can check into?”
“Oh there’s no need,” her voice took on that coy tone.
“Yes. There is.” He tossed the towels into the laundry basket. “Listen, I need to lock up and head home. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow I have another shoot. Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve told you?”
Perhaps he’d not listened well enough. There’d been a time when they talked every day, late into the night. They’d share their dreams and aspirations. She’d always wanted to be a model. He should have seen this coming, but he’d reasoned that she was reaching for the impossible.
Except she really was such a natural beauty with her raven black hair and beautiful blue eyes. She’d been born to model with her trim form and graceful mannerisms.
He’d fooled himself.
“That’s right. I’m sorry, Mar…uh…Merci. Sorry. Why don’t you call me, then? Around this time in the evening is perfect.”
“Okay, Pookie. I love you.”
He hated it when she called him that.
“Love you, too.”
After she hung up, he tucked his phone into the back pocket of his charcoal gray slacks with a disgruntled sigh. Merci wanted him to tell her that he’d move to New York with her. That’s he’d be willing to follow her from city to city on her shoots. She had an offer to model a line of clothing in London. It sounded exciting…except….
Except he loved his life in Madison Creek. He loved the town. He loved his job. Uncle Melvin gave him run of the kitchen and though his uncle still held the head chef’s position, Leon was second in line.
Leon liked that he had friends here. Roots. And he also liked that when he had nowhere to spend the holidays, there was always a spot at the Winters’ table. He didn’t even need a personal invite. Mr. Ethan told him to just show up. If he brought one of his special desserts with him, all the better.
He didn’t tell too many people that most of Lakeshore’s fancy desserts came from the Candy Lane Sweet Shop. Miss Candyce Barkley made the creamiest cakes, the flakiest pies, and the prettiest candies. Why try to top the best? Better to join forces and order from her, than stress over trying to beat her out.
After locking up, Leon aimlessly strolled toward Main Street. A light snow had fallen earlier, but the skies cleared in the afternoon, melting most of it. However, the dropping temperatures were turning the roads slushy again. He should head to his apartment. The night was quite chilly. Because he lived so close to the restaurant, he usually walked to work. Easier to walk than drive the four slick streets between his work and home.
“See? It’s festive here, too.” He whispered, admiring the stringed lights hanging across the street from rooftop to rooftop. All the trees were lit up with white, twinkling, glowing balls. Each store had decorated their front windows in various unique ways.
He needed to go onto the town’s website and vote for his favorite display. The family of snowmen dressed in sparkling shirts and colorful scarves from Glo’s Boutique made him smile. But it was always the Candy Lane display that ended up being his favorite with her enchanting scenes from the Nutcracker or another favorite holiday story. This year, he’d heard that she’d managed to suspend a train track from the ceiling and had the Polar Express circling the holiday displays.
This was the first opportunity he’d had to check out Main Street at night.
Despite all the finery and flare surrounding him, his heart felt as if he’d swallowed a fist-sized snowball. Maybe he needed to break it off with Marcy, or Merci. Whoever she was now.
He missed his old friend. They’d been great pals while he’d been in culinary school and she’d attended the nearby design school. She’d been interested in making her own clothing lines. Then, someone noticed Marcy’s stunning beauty and offered her a chance to stand in the limelight. And she loved it.
He couldn’t blame her.
Leon loved it when someone asked to meet the chef and wanted to pat his back for making such a fine meal. That’s why he’d taken the job at his uncle’s restaurant, knowing the clientele would be wealthy people from town and beyond. In the summer, the docks were filled with the nicest boats sailing the Great Lakes. They came to sample Uncle’s fine cuisine.
Leon loved being part of that. And sure, he could get that and more in New York. Except…thinking about moving to such a…large…place made his stomach hurt.
He didn’t want to hold Marcy back. Truthfully, he had a feeling she’d not be held back. Maybe he did need to book that plane ticket, go to New York, and… he breathed in deep, wondering if he’d be able to actually break it off with her. They complimented each other so well. Everyone thought they were perfect together.
Maybe he’d get to New York and find it wasn’t as bad as he feared.
Except, she didn’t plan to stay there either. She’d let him know the world was open to her. To them, if he wished to tag along.
“Well, Leon Jovino, you’re the last person I’d expect to run into this time of night.”
Leon spun around to find Sage Prater standing behind him, her arms filled with a picnic basket and a couple of blankets. She’d cut her red hair short to tame some of her curls, he supposed. It was cute.
“Good evening, Sage,” Leon grinned. She’d always been a natural beauty, too, except she’d had Nikolai Prater’s heart since they’d been teenagers, it seemed. Nick snagged her up quick, too. Prater hadn’t wasted time wondering and second-guessing his feelings. “Isn’t it kind of cold for a picnic?”
Her green eyes widened. “Oh no, it’s a perfect night.” She stepped in closer, offering a quick hug and peck on his cheek. “Are you getting a head start on your Christmas shopping? The stores closed an hour ago. Most of them, anyway.”
“I know. I was just admiring the decorations. They really went all out this year, didn’t they?”
“There’s a five-hundred-dollar grand prize for the winner, along with bragging rights and a trophy.” She waved her free hand toward the electronic store where she and her husband worked. “We went for techno lighting that pulses to Christmas tunes. I’m already beyond sick of Jingle Bell Rock. I mean, seriously.”
Leon chucked. “Right. Five hundred does help drive incentive. Well, it all looks amazing. I’m going to be hard put to choose who to vote for.”
Her lips pursed together. “Why, you’ll vote for us, right?”
She started laughing and nudged him with her basket, letting him off the hook. He remembered a time when she’d always been nervous around him and was glad they could be friends now. Nick was a lucky guy.
“Say, if you’re in the mood to see something amazing, you need to follow me.” She jerked her head, her smile warming his heart. “Come on. Nikolai is waiting. I know he’ll love it if you join us. There is a group of us meeting at the beach for some star-gazing. They say there’s a good chance we’ll get a glimpse of the Northern Lights tonight. Come on!”
Well, if there were others, then he’d not feel as if he were intruding on a date night. “Okay. Can I help you with that basket?”
Her grin widened. “Sure. How gentlemanly of you.”
He laughed and slipped his arm through the straps of the heavy basket, wondering what treats she’d piled inside. This was something else about small towns that he loved. If people noticed you wandering around alone, they were usually quick to invite you to join in their fun.
New York was too bright to see stars, from what he’d heard. One only had to drive a couple of miles outside of town to enjoy the most spectacular view of the galaxy.
As they neared the tourist park, he noticed a new Christmas tree lot going up. This one was getting a little bit of a late start, he thought. A small green camper sat beside the tent packed with pines.
“I heard your hot model girlfriend got a real modeling job. How is that going for her?” Sage asked, keeping the conversation going, just when they’d settled into a comfortable lull.
“Great from what she was saying when I talked to her earlier. She loves New York.” He left it at that but felt Sage’s probing gaze as they walked along.
“I heard she changed her name and everything.”
Leon nodded. “She’s Merci Lace now.” He chuckled to hide his troubled feelings over all the changes. “Wow,” he noticed several shadowy figures standing along the shoreline. “You didn’t say it was a party.”
Sage’s shoulder shrugged. “Just a few friends.” Cupping her hands to her mouth, she called out, “I brought hot chocolate, chips, and Leon Jovino!”
A few shouts and whoops went up from the group. Leon couldn’t help but smile. At least here, he always felt welcomed.
Nikolai stood from his camp chair and shook Leon’s hand after someone else took the basket and began passing out cups to everyone. “So glad you’re joining us, Jovino,” he said. “It’s good to break away from work and spend time enjoying God’s beauty.”
Leon nodded. Miss Haley had gotten him involved in her church and he’d been attending faithfully. Marcy always said she was too busy for that stuff.
“Oh, look,” Sage exclaimed, pointing out over the still lake at a star zooming across the dotted expanse. From here, they could see thousands of stars. It wasn’t equal to what one could see when out in the country, but the view was indeed stunning, all the same.
“Everyone make a wish!”
Leon held his breath and closed his eyes. He wasn’t much for trusting in wishes, but what could it hurt?
“Bad enough that I got a late start,” Kenna Allender said into her phone that she’d tucked between her shoulder and ear. “I need that shipment of trees. When will they get here? You promised I’d have them this morning.”
“Roy had a flat tire, Sweetheart,” answered her Dad. “He’s getting it fixed. There was something about bending the rim and he needed to replace it. But he promises to be there first thing in the morning. Have you really sold out?”
Kenna glanced over her shoulder at the tiny tree lot she’d set up at the edge of the tourist park. She would have liked to have secured the grocery store spot lot but had arrived in Madison Creek too late. Well, next year….
“I still have some.” She’d not tell Daddy that there were at least twenty trees left. It was early yet. Most had sold the day after Thanksgiving while she was setting up. She’d barely had a chance to get them off the delivery truck before families were taking them away.
“But Murry said he’s already sold fifty trees and you didn’t even send me that many. Why did he get such a large order?” Her oldest brother always got the top pick of trees from her family’s tree farm and the first pick of towns where he’d do his selling. Madison Creek had been on the bottom of the list and the first time Mom and Dad had decided to try selling in the small lakeside town. They’d heard business was booming as it was becoming a hot spot for holiday festivals and events over the past few years.
“Calm down. We were worried about overloading you, honey. He was the first one to get out there and get set up. Of course, he took the largest load. You…”
“I got held up at school. I know, I know. But listen, you’re the one who upped the bonus deal this year. You have to give me an equal chance to beat him.”
Daddy chuckled. “Ah, sibling rivalries. When will you all grow out of that nonsense?”
Kenna wanted to say, “Probably never.” But refrained from smarting off. She wanted that bonus this year. The two thousand dollars would be a nice down payment on a new car for herself. Old George, her lime green VW Bug was on its last miles.
She blew out a short breath, sending a cloud of fog up around her head. “Promise the truck will be here tomorrow? I have some big ideas I want to try out. Things to draw people over to my lot. I’m actually kind of excited. Madison Creek holds an annual festival celebration. Something called a Holiday Hoopalooza. There will be games and carriage rides. I thought about having a wreath building stand, and maybe offer a couple of games for the kiddos. You know, something to draw people in while they’re out anyway?”
“That’s my smart girl. You’ll do good, I’m sure. Have you found a safe place to park the camper? You’re being sure to keep everything locked up, right?”
“Yes,” she drew the word out in exasperation. “I’m always careful, and I’m right here at the tree lot, as usual. I was actually able to use the tourist park so I have hook-ups and everything. I gave the owner his choice of trees for a big discount, so I’m good to go. I was just thinking about driving down to the store and picking up some food for the week. But I didn’t want to miss Roy.”
“You won’t. He’ll be there in the morning. Promise.”
“Okay, Daddy. I better get going before the store closes. I love you like pumpkin pie,” she said with a smile. “Give Mama a kiss for me.”
“Sure thing, baby. Love you like chocolate pudding,” he teased back before warning, “Stay safe.” They’d been making the same joke since she was in grade school. I love you like fried chicken. I love you like mint chocolate chip ice cream. Corny, she knew, but it was their fun little thing.
Kenna hit the end call button with a smile. Her daddy was such a worry-wort. It had taken some convincing to get him to agree to send her out to sell trees like her other four out of ten siblings did every year. She’d had to throw in her discrimination card after her younger brother, Greg, was given his own lot this year. Mom had talked Daddy into giving Kenna a lot just to shut her up.
Three years ago, Kenna had been sent out with Murry, which had been a nightmare. He liked to party too much and had nearly ended up in jail for disorderly conduct. But jail would have been preferable to the fury of facing their father when he found out what happened and had to drive down to take over the tree lot.
Still, at least Kenna had been able to prove she was the more responsible one. After a year of missing out, Murry wised up and took his job, and his life, more seriously. Daddy liked to make things interesting by offering a bonus to the one who sold the most trees. So far, Murry and Donald, the second oldest Allender, had won the cash prize. This year, Kenna, who was third in line, was determined that bonus would be hers. She had a plan. She could do this.
After securing a rope around her spot, she sent a text to the park manager, letting him know she was going to make a quick trip to the store. Mr. McCarty would keep an eye on things, so long as she didn’t leave for too long. That was the only downfall about handling the tree lot alone. With no back-up, she rarely left her little spot unattended.
Most of the trees were tucked inside the large white tent. She’d planned to hang some signs announcing her wreath building classes and natural decor tips. People liked to spend a lot of money on ornaments, but it wasn’t necessary. With the right frame of mind, one had a bounty of decor waiting right in their own yards, provided by God Himself.
She sent another text asking Mr. McCarty if he needed anything while she was at the store. After a few turns of the key, she finally got Old George to wake up and rumble to life. The manager responded that he was good and thanked her for asking.
As Kenna drove down Main Street, her eyes widened at the sight. Oh, but she loved small quaint towns like this. Each shop was decorated. Some with flashy, glittering tinsel and metallic looking boughs of silvery foliage hanging over the doorways. Other’s decked with pine and twinkling lights. A corner diner had painted a snowy scene with happy snowmen and goofy reindeer on the large windows. How fun. She couldn’t help but think the sight along Main Street was right out of one of those beautiful paintings of homey towns that she loved so much.
Once she reached the grocery store, Kenna lucked out with a front-row parking spot. It was probably because they closed in fifteen minutes. Well, she’d make quick work in getting what she needed for the next few days. They were all given a living expense account, but Daddy only gave them enough to make sure they’d last the whole season if they spent it wisely. One thing he instilled in all of them was making do with what you had on hand and not being wasteful.
She didn’t mind. The Allenders’ spendthrift ways enabled all of them a chance to go to college if they wished.
When she entered the store, Kenna yanked off her knit cap and gloves before grabbing one of the smaller baskets. Milk, bread… some lunch meat for sandwiches. She tried to walk fast through the bakery section, her weakness, but then saw a sign for half-off the cookies. Ugh!
Twenty minutes later, Kenna headed back to the car, a chocolate chip cookie stuck in her mouth while she tried to fish the keys from her pocket. Several bags hung from her arms. She’d not wanted to bring the basket outside, not when they were trying to close up. Putting the bags in the back seat, except the cookies, Kenna had to coax George to turn over again. It seemed the starter was slipping. More incentive to win that prize money.
“I love you George, but it’s time for you to be…” she patted the dashboard with her mitten. “Well, I’ll make sure to find you a nice new home. Promise.” He was a classic, surely some collector would be interested in making her a deal?
The temperatures had started to drop, causing the wet roads to freeze. She should have done her shopping while the sun was still up, but there’d been so many people stopping by to check out the trees.
The bug shimmied and skidded along Main Street like a dizzy beetle. Old George needed a new set of tires. She was grateful that the street was clear this time of night. “I just need to get back to my little camper and I’ll be good for the rest of the week.”
As she neared Lakeshore road, the town lights were fewer and farther apart. Kenna wiped at her glove over the fogging window. “Listen up, George. You better not lose your heater, too. I can live without an air conditioner, but not a heater. Got it, Mister?”
The engine sputtered, then backfired. The sound so startled Kenna that she accidentally jumped and jerked at the steering wheel. The little car fishtailed for a second before she was able to get it back under control. Kenna blew out a long breath of relief, fogging the window again.
She wiped it clear to find something…or someone, stepping off the curb, only a few feet in front of her. Jabbing the horn, Kenna hit the breaks and tried to swerve to avoid hitting the pedestrian. “Oh no, no, please, please…don’t hit…” the car lurched to the side, and the tires slid over the frozen road, sending her straight into a row of mailboxes. Kenna turned the wheel again, trying to avoid them, but momentum shot her straight into the last box, wedging her against a light pole.
She slammed forward into the dashboard. Pain shot up her leg and through her head before everything went dark.
Jackie Castle is an author, artist and dreamer. She lives in Texas with her husband, two grown children and her dog, Banjo. She looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary in everything she experiences.