007TH DAY OF CHRISTMAS

The 007th Day of Christmas is a Sweet Fake Date Romance that delivers the spirit of the holidays and one magical night filled with mystery, intrigue, and love…

Chapter 1 – Allie

t’s the first day of Christmas. 

Jesus’s birthday. The annual gathering, which takes place at my parents’ renovated, four-story Capitol Hill rowhouse, lingers between the great gift opening and dinner. My sister and I arrived at the cock’s crow as tradition holds. It’s clear my dad has darn near broken his back hanging up lights and tinsel everywhere. There’s enough twinkling to make the house visible from Mars, and we could fill tubs in the four bathrooms with garland and ornaments from the three mountainous Douglass Firs. The main tree in the family room, next to the fireplace that houses the stockings, has been relieved of the shredded gift boxes, the red, white, and green, themed wrapping paper, and a rainbow assortment of bows and ribbon strands that once littered the floor.

With Aunt Vee cooking dinner, and Smith, her son, setting the table at her order, there’s nothing else for me to do except survive the day, a feat that’s not guaranteed. But at least the farce will be over.

It’s not easy to pull the wool over my mother’s eyes. My father is a little less discerning because he chooses to be. On the other hand, my mother has made a living by noticing the details for twenty years as a case officer in The Agency’s clandestine service. I am in my bedroom, hiding from the star of the show to avoid more dreaded questions about the state of my relationship future with my date, Sean. 

Understand, they all know him and have since we played together as kindergarteners. They’d gotten used to Nate being my boyfriend so Sean’s emergence as Bachelor #1 has come as a surprise to everyone—including and especially me. 

Our formal agreement included only four holiday dates. By some miracle, we’ve survived the Halloween party, Thanksgiving, and his office party interrogations without getting exposed. Christmas is a different occasion. It’s tough to lie with Jesus’s eyes burning through me from Mom’s manger.

I take refuge on the twinkly lighted window seat adjacent to my bed and sit on an overstuffed pillow covered with Santa’s face, which seems wrong on many levels. I grab my mother’s treasured Government-issued Minolta, a symbol of her success and my failure, just as the door creaks open.

“There’s my Allie Cat! Why are you hiding up here?” Mom struts inside because that’s how she walks. She even makes the ugliest Christmas sweater in the world look cool. “Cryssie’s already downstairs pushing tables and chairs around for the holiday games later.”

“I don’t know how she does it—pushes furniture while being so incredibly perfect. She must be exhausted,” I say, concealing my jealousy behind a thick slather of sarcasm. Cryssie’s always been enough in her eyes. Me? Not so much. “I’m just kidding. I’m not hiding. I’m catching my breath before the Pictionary excitement begins. You know how Granny is.”

“Don’t I?! Your uncle, aunt, and cousins are on the way. I understand Sean will be here soon as well.”

I nod, tighten my lips, and glance outside at the empty streets. It’s Christmas Day. Everyone’s inside, it seems.

“You two are a bit of a surprise, don’t you think? Perhaps a little misfit?”

Misfit.

To my family, maybe. But not to us. We’ve borrowed one another for the holidays. 

After a ten-year absence, he moved back to town a few years ago, and now after returning from his Paris assignment, he’s on loan from the universe. He recently ghosted Greta (his almost-ex-girlfriend), the bougie heifer I can’t stand.

Of course, I never shared my harsh opinion of her and kept my mouth pickle-lid tight during their relationship. Fortunately, after a few rolls in the hay, he gave her the old heave-ho and at a speed that almost gave me whiplash. However, it turns out they’re on a break just in time for the holiday season, one that threatened to leave us both dateless with targets on our backs. So, we gifted each other with the thing we needed to keep our families from slinging Cupid’s arrows and setting us up with the unmarried children of friends of friends because they’re “perfect” for us. 

“Why? Because he’s a tall, intelligent, handsome, suave diplomat. And I’m a lowly intel analyst who’s been rejected by The Agency a gazillion times?”

I’ve spent my life and energy trying to be just like her, in every way, her looks, her charm, her brick-house figure, and one of the most patriotic jobs anyone could have. Just my luck, the buck stops at our last names.

“Why do you always say things like that, Allie? First of all, it’s thirteen times. And we’re all praying for the yes in progress. Lord knows we’ll all be relieved when you get accepted to the Farm. Secondly, I meant that you two lost touch during college…you seemed so close. None of us understood the reason he disappeared.”

I shrug. They wouldn’t. Truth be told, I don’t either. He vanished from my life like warm breath in cold air. I knew he’d once been there, but he left without notice.

“I can’t say,” I reply.

“I’ll be honest, I thought you might have pulled an Allie.”

“Really, Mom?”

Everyone claims I duck out of situations when they get too hard. Even if they’re right, I’ll never admit it.

“But you were clearly heartbroken, so we thought better of it.” 

I want to respond but have no valid rebuttal. Thank goodness for the ringing at the door.

“Saved by the bell. Probably the family…or Sean,” she says. “Go ahead and freshen up. I’ll keep ‘em busy until you get downstairs.”

“Oh, no. I’m thirty seconds behind you.” There’s no way she’s grilling Sean without me present. I check myself in the mirror, fluff my hair, and tug my sweater over my hips.

By the time I reach the bottom of the steps, the whole brood has paraded in the foyer and relieved their coats on the mahogany rack nested behind the door. “Alley cat! Merry Christmas to my favorite baby niece,” says Uncle King. 

“I’m your only baby niece,” I say.

With the first name Allie and the middle name Katherine, the nickname Allie Kat was almost inevitable.

“There’s my girl,” Aunt Willie says, subsuming me into a bear hug. She wears fake fur coats with crocheted hats and ugly Christmas sweaters the whole winter. Her fashion choices are confusing at best. 

I greet them first and then embrace my cousins Dean and Chelle, who always dress as if they’ve materialized from an Old Navy ad, before I move on to Sean.

“Sorry, I’m running behind,” Sean whispers. “When did you get here?” 

“This morning,” I reply, matching the volume of his voice. “The first day of every Christmas, I try to arrive before the judgment and humiliation, but it beats me through the door, every single time. It’s exhausting. But thank you for being here.” His presence smooths the edges of my jagged morning. Thank you wasn’t enough. 

“Okay, everyone,” Mom chirps. Her voice hit chirpy only once a year—Jesus’ birthday, specifically. In dutiful hostess mode, she escorts everyone into the family room, where they offload their gifts and cover the brown tufted sofa with their butts. This part of the family hasn’t met Sean yet. I’m giving Aunt Willie the stink eye because I see she’s winding up to kick off what I hope is the final interrogation of the season.

“So…,”Aunt Willie begins, glaring in my direction. With her eyes, she warns me about the bomb she’s prepared to drop. “What happened to Nate? He promised me a bottle of Canadian ice wine.”

She and my mother loved Nate, who, as it turns out, is a lying, cheating scoundrel of a dog. I think Aunt Willie likes him because Mom says so. 

“Nate is no doubt somewhere barbecuing the souls of his enemies with the lumps of coal he received from Santa this year,” I reply. “Needless to say, he won’t be attending…this day or any other.”

Uncle King turns to Sean in some vain attempt to assume control of the conversation. “So, new-boyfriend-Sean, where do you work?”

I’m not embarrassed at all. Also, dogs have wings.

“State. The department,” he replies, remembering my previous advice to keep his answers to a minimum.

“Ohhh, so you work with our Allie Kat,” Aunt Willie says. “What do you do?”

“I’m a diplomat, second secretary—higher than a third, not as senior as a first. Economics.”

“Nerd,” Dean says. “Booooor-ring!”

I mentally shift to calculating the amount of force necessary to propel myself to the center of the Earth with a plate of Christmas ham and sweet potato pie in my hand.

“Oh, is he a diplomat, now?” Mom says. She and Sean exchange some weird look. I figure my mom’s already run a background check on him. She claims she has “people,” and they do things for her. I believe her because she has a magical way of getting stuff done without actually doing them herself. Dad’s a former analyst at The Agency, like me. Nate’s an operative like Mom, so they’ve got more in common.

With Aunt Willie headed off at the Sean pass, she returns her attention to me. “The eighth day of Christmas is only seven days away now. Finally, you’ll be turning thirty-five. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ll be relieved. At last, you can call it quits on this misguided dream of joining The Agency and following in your mother’s footsteps. Make the best of it where you are.”

Here we go. There’s no better day than Christmas for your family to remind you that your dreams are circling the drain along with your life.

“This is neither the time nor place for that, Willie. Everybody in here’s enjoying the day, and you’ve got to come up in here with your Dalmatian coat acting like Cruella.”

She clutches her imaginary pearls. “I’m not trying to cause trouble. I’m just saying she’s fine right where she is. Right, Wynne?”

“My name is Bennett. I’m not in it,” Mom says, offering her canned response. “Whatever Allie does, I just want her to be happy.”

“Hello! I’m sitting right here!” I say before shrinking back into my seat, wishing the day, and the holidays, would all go away. I’m planted in a spot where there’s no escape, except a large plate-glass window.

Seeing the pain in my eyes, Sean does something Nate never would do—faces down my mother and the rest of my family. “I happen to believe Allie’s beautiful and brilliant. She is, and always has been, one of the best people I know. She can do and achieve anything she sets her mind to accomplish. I’ve no doubt she’ll reach every goal she makes for herself…with my support, even if she doesn’t have yours.”

Mic drop. He sets every single one of them straight. If not for Greta and the eight pairs of eyes glaring at us right now, I’d have pounced on him like a puma on a pet bunny. Out of all the folks in this room, everyone in this world, he’s the only person who thinks I’m enough, as I am. I wish I had as much faith in myself.

Not a sound can be heard except Aunt Vee’s pans clanking as she continues to cook with no clue about the verbal Christmas Day can of whoop-ass he’s gifted to my family. The day, only halfway over, couldn’t get any better than that moment. I squeeze his hand, lean into him with an affectionate bump, and lie my head against his shoulder. Except…I remember that every word out of his mouth is part of the performance, and no matter how much I may want to fall for him—I can’t. He’s not mine, and we share nothing real…even if it feels so.

“Well, I’m going to see if Aunt Vee needs help in the kitchen,” Mom says. “It’s about time for Pictionary. Chelle, Dean? Why don’t you two pull it out while Allie organizes everyone so we can pick teams?”

“I’m on it,” I say as I release Sean’s hand and fetch the hat and paper scraps so we can choose names.

We do this every year. I don’t know why. We’re all cranky and hungry as the scent of turkey, ham, and dressing wafts in and out of our noses and our stomachs churn with starvation. At our least patient states, we’re expected to guess the impossible because there’s not one decent artist between us…. not even if you combine the whole of our artistic talent and gift it to a single family member. Every blasted year this game devolves into the shouting match before dinner. Yet, every year we do it because it’s “tradition.”

Within minutes, the Pictionary setup is out, and we pick our teams. It’s Dad, Granny, Mom, Chelle, and Sean against Aunt Willie, Dean, Uncle King, Cryssie, and me. Aunt Vee yells wrong answers out of the kitchen whenever the Christmas spirit hits her.

This should be interesting. I can almost hear my mother groan inside. She doesn’t like being on the same side as Granny, her own mother. Sorry to say, she has good reason, and Granny always chooses to guess first.

“Go ahead, Al,” Mom says to Dad. He’s Alexander, and I’m named after him. He selects his first word from the raggedy stack of Christmas words on index cards we created umpteen years ago.

“Okay, here we go,” Dad says. He’s a notoriously awful artist. Draws weird stick people. He stands next to the easel, with his neck wrapped in silver garland and a red Sharpie in his hand.

He’s barely half a line into his masterpiece before Granny shouts out, “Baby Jesus!”

Every year, same guess. 

Every year, wrong. 

She’s a tiny gray-haired lady with a smile that could brighten the black hole, and she wears bifocals thick enough to see into it, from her basement, without a telescope. Everything looks like Baby Jesus to her. No matter what dad scribbles—Jingle bells, candy canes, the mailman—she sees Baby Jesus. We haven’t decided whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Dad finishes the line before Mom shouts out, “Alpaca!” 

“Really, Mom?” I say, and I’m not even on their team. “A Christmas alpaca?”

“I saw one on YouTube.”

“Maybe. But dad draws like Picasso’s step-cousin. So, you wouldn’t recognize it.”

“Whatever,” she teases, with a roll of her eyes and a smile on her lips; she knows I’m not lying.

Dean, Aunt Vee’s son, yells out, “Ugly Christmas sweater.” He’s about two losing guesses from being as bad as Granny. He’s an Ivy-league engineer who couldn’t guess his way out of a Wheel of Fortune tournament with all the consonants. Games just aren’t his thing.

“Sweet Baby Jesus,” Granny belts out again as if this guess is substantively different from the first because she adds the word “sweet.”

“Wrong, again!” Aunt Willie cheers.

“Maybe everything wouldn’t look like Baby Jesus if I weren’t so busy praying Aunt Vee would hurry up and put supper on the table. I’m starving.”

“We’re all hungry,” says Uncle King. “But I think we can all agree Baby Jesus needs a nap.”

[END OF PREVIEW]…

Chapters

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Allie Bawn wants two things that have eluded her for years: her dream career and the love of her life.  

With the ghost of her ex-boyfriend lingering over family holiday celebrations, all she can deal with is a fake date to survive her family’s “you’ll-die-alone” spiels during traditional get-togethers. 

Thankfully, her college sweetheart (and former beau) Sean agrees to step in. Their agreement lasts from Halloween through Christmas Day—now it’s all over, and they go their separate ways. 

Soon both learn the future of their careers depends on attending the 20th Annual Spy Ball on New Year’s Eve—and they both desperately need dates for professional reasons. But their fake date gets unexpectedly personal in ways that may change their lives forever.

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