Baby, It's Cold Outside

Bonus First Chapter

Marilee

“Step right up. Who’s going to be the next to receive this once-in-a-year offer? How about you, little lady? With this little envelope, all your dreams could come true.”

Lena, my always cute and usually perky best friend, slapped my arm then plucked the paper from my hand. “You’re an idiot,” she said, laughing and scrunched her button nose while she peeked inside the packet. Until her eyes, I assumed, narrowed in on the amount. That got her attention. Her auburn brows shot up distorting her face making it my turn to laugh.

I adored being the bearer of good fortune. It wasn’t a huge shindig like some companies threw for their employees because I knew that most of them had better places to be when not on the clock, but I’d set out a few platters of meats, cheeses, and crudités along with a couple of punch bowls. One filled with sangria and the other a nonalcoholic fruit punch with lemon-lime soda and apricot nectar. If anyone wanted to add a little nip of something to their cup, that was on them.

Holiday music played softly through the speakers, setting the tone for the evening’s festivities that were now winding down.

“All my hopes and dreams should be arriving in about eight weeks.” Polk, another one of my servers, stepped up to swipe his Christmas bonus from my waiting hand while Bing Crosby crooned about dreaming of a white Christmas, overhead. Polk was handsome in that boyish-charm-and-good-looks way that some men have. Sandy brown hair and pale blue eyes. He had a smattering of freckles on his nose and a dimple that showed when he smiled that always worked for him in the tips department. The ladies loved Polk. But truthfully, I thought the thing they loved the most about him was his unwavering devotion to the love of his life, Rebecka, who worked over at Glen’s Market and Gas. Everyone here knew her as “Becks.”

In a small town like Lake Shores, their love was considered love goals for the entire town, old and young. It was because of people like Lena and Polk and his lady fair, Becks, that made this year’s bonus so special. I refused to add the bonuses to their paychecks because for most of them, they’d just get taxed at a higher rate and all that bonus would get eaten up by the federal government. They worked way too hard for me to allow that to happen.

This place, The Bell Jar Bistro, was my love child born when my life-long dream to own a high-end eatery in Lake Shores met a business loan with a freaking great interest rate thanks to my fantastic credit score.

My parents hadn’t given me much aside from the knowledge that if my younger siblings were going to get fed, I had to be the one to provide for them. Frugality: a word I learned early on. When your babysitting job put peanut butter and jelly on the table and the electric bill needed to be paid to avoid shutoff, you learned how to make and stick with a budget.

“Jesus, Polk, you realize that she’s a baby—who hasn’t been born yet. You had the shower. Half the stuff you buy you’ll forget you have until she’s too old to use it,” I teased.

“You realize that Becks and I have been trying for years. If I want to spoil my daughter, I will. Besides, some of it’s to spoil her mama, too.”

“You’re a good man, Polk.”

He smiled with that dimple popping through. “Thank you.”

“Whipped,” I amended, “but good.”

“Did someone say something about whipped?” Girard, my breathtakingly handsome, hot-shot chef, strode into the dining room with us from the kitchen using that confident swagger of his that secretly always got to me. He’d changed out of his uniform and into jeans and a roasted chestnut colored thermal Henley. The color complimented his bourbon eyes twinkling under the dimly lit mason jar lighting fixtures, made to create ambiance. Of course, those eyes created a whole different kind of ambiance all on their own. What did they call them? Bedroom eyes?

I didn’t know what I was thinking hiring Girard Eaton—no, I take that back, I knew exactly what I was thinking. He had a great…resumé. Mind out of the gutter, Marilee.

“Not the type of whipping you’re thinking about, Eaton,” I said to the snickers of the room, then I quickly added on for good measure, “in either sense of the word.” I swore his cheeks pinked slightly as the room’s snickers turned to full-blown laughs. “Seriously, though, here’s your bonus. Thank you for a great year. The Bell Jar wouldn’t be where it is right now if not for you.” I handed him his check as well as handing out checks to my other employees who hadn’t stepped up to get theirs yet.

“Wouldn’t want to work anywhere else,” Lena said, hugging me. She happened to wear the title of lead server along with that best friend tag. The woman mastered her role as both. To run an operation like The Bell Jar, you had to have complete trust in your employees. I was lucky enough to have that in spades.

“I wouldn’t want you working anywhere else. Then you’d be making them successful.” The group laughed, but I needed them to feel the sincerity of those words. Though to keep things from getting too heavy, I changed the subject. After all, this was bonus night. Bonus night meant a lot to all of us. “What are your plans for the holiday?” I asked instead.

“Becks and I are heading down to Pontiac for a few days to have Christmas with her family.” Polk opened his envelope and I felt like Santa Claus when his eyes grew bigger than the saucers we set the coffee cups on. The smile of appreciation was more than enough to make me feel like all my years of sacrifice were worth it.

“That sounds fun,” Lena replied. “I’m just heading across town to have dinner with my sister, her husband, and the monsters.”

Girard laughed. “The monsters?”

“My nieces. They’re the devil’s spawn. My sister apparently decided to use the Lord of the Flies as her parenting guide and my brother-in-law gives my sister whatever she wants.”

“Fun,” I answered, making sure to lay the sarcasm on thick because I’d had the misfortune of spending time with her nieces on several occasions. She wasn’t wrong. Those girls were out of control.

“Really, Lee,” Lena said, using my nickname. “What are your exciting plans?”

I shrugged. “Same as usual.”

“Jimmy and Tess aren’t coming home?”

“Nah, Jimmy’s got his own thing going on somewhere down south. Tess is seeing some guy out in L.A. She’s not coming, either.”

“They never come home,” Lena protested, as if it mattered. My brother and sister had their own lives. Whether Lena disliked it or not didn’t change the facts.

“What’s there to come home to?” I asked sharply.

“Uh… you,” she answered indignantly. “You made it possible for them to live their happy little lives. Now they just abandon you? How about some appreciation?”

“They didn’t abandon me. People get busy. Work. Friends. Dating. Besides, I have the restaurant. It takes up all my free time. They know I don’t have time to take off if they come home.”

“You spend too much time at this place, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask, Len.”

“Woman can’t live by work alone,” she argued.

“What?” I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Relationships, babe. Sex. Do you even remember that?”

“Well, that’s my cue to head home,” Polk muttered uncomfortably.

“Lena.” I dropped my hands to my hips, narrowing my face on her in a way that she had to get my meaning. “That is so not appropriate. This is my place of business.”

She genuinely looked surprised to hear the admonishment, but seriously? She had no right to talk about me in front of the other employees. That was private, best friend gossip, not meant for the group at large. I wanted to be friends with them, but there had to be a limit to what I shared. I was the boss.

“Right,” she said. “I’m heading home.” I knew I’d hurt her feelings, but she turned around to leave our little group before I could pull her aside to render damage control.

“Len—” I called to her retreating back, defeated and hating that she was mad at me, even if it’d been her in the wrong—which today, she totally was.

“Well, I’m heading out, too.” Girard patted my arm in a consoling maneuver. “Got a friend to meet,” he mumbled.

Consoling. Girard, Mr. Hottie McHotterson, felt sorry for me. He was leaving to meet up with a friend. I bet I knew the kind of friend he was meeting with at this hour of night. The last thing I needed was for Girard to feel sorry for me. The last thing I needed was for any of my employees to feel sorry for me.

Marilee Bell.

Restaurateur.

General Manager.

Total loser.

My own brother and sister didn’t care enough to visit me. My friends all had plans for Christmas and I didn’t. Again. Why? Because I gave all my love and devotion, the love and devotion I used to give to my siblings to try as much as possible to keep them from feeling the loss of our family. Dad taking off to parts unknown. Mom and her depression. The woman hardly knew she had kids.

I even put off college for a couple of years to see Jimmy and Tess graduated and into college.  I couldn’t leave them behind. The idea never crossed my mind. I’d been taking care of them for too long. Things changed for me when I’d gone away to culinary school. Classes and hustling for the best jobs took up all my extra free time. It gave me the chance to be young, be me for a while. Not a surrogate mother.

Free and easy, though I’d worked my butt off. But I didn’t have to care about anyone. It let me breathe for once in my life.

And once school was over, we’d spent so much time trying to build our reputations. No chef worth their salt got involved in a relationship while making a name. Everyone knew that. The hours we had to put in. The one-track minds singularly focused on food as career. A relationship was always going to come in second place, that was the nature of the beast.

I laughed humorlessly as I walked over to the bar, swiping a bottle of Old Forester from the top shelf and a glass, both of which made the trek back to my office with me. Dropping down into my chair, I unscrewed the cap and poured. The flavor was smoky and peppery to my tongue, and exactly what I needed to clear my head ironically.

The quiet in my office tonight felt so suffocating that I thought I might actually die. How did I end up pissing off my one friend that I talked to on a regular basis? How did I end up sitting in my office sad and alone while everyone I knew went home to lives?  

God, I was so pathetic. Could anybody say pity party for one? Quit your whining, Marilee. You built a successful business from the ground up, and all before the age of thirty. I should listen to myself more often because I was right, this place belonged to me. Why should I eat a Christmas frozen dinner while watching twenty-four hours of A Christmas Story as the highlight of my holiday?

Seriously, I bet there were other people in this town who tired of Stouffer’s turkey, too.

What if…

Opening up a Word document on my computer, I created a quick signup sheet for my employees. I needed several workers who’d be willing to work on Christmas day for a hefty holiday payday. With the padded paycheck I was offering, getting employees to come in wouldn’t be an issue.

Then I printed up three copies. One for the kitchen. One for the service station. And one for the bar. After completing that task, I set to work putting my Merry Christmas into action.

Using the restaurant’s newsletter, I thought about what I wanted to say and then began typing.

 

Lonely Hearts’ Christmas Dinner

The holidays are a time for friendship and family, but for some of us, it’s a time for frozen dinners and Christmas movies. If, this year, you’d prefer a delicious meal and sparkling conversation, join us here at The Bell Jar Bistro. Christmas Day. 6:00 p.m. $50 per person. RSVP for your spot today.

Okay, so I was no writer, but it got the point across. Without a second thought, I let out a long breath and hit send.

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