Silver Bells by Anne Shaw

Chapter One

Silver Bells…Silver Bells…

“Why do people insist on playing Christmas music so early?” Alice Carlson leaned back in the chair at her office in sunny Burbank, California, and tried to ignore the song that drifted from the speakers at the Epicurean Network.

“Commercialism. Have you made your plane reservations? If not, I can have my assistant book them for you,” her fiancé Richard said over the speakerphone.

How to answer without triggering the inevitable argument? Alice dared not share her aversion to the holiday season with Richard nor offer him a reason why. Not yet. Perhaps not ever. “That’s very sweet of you but I don’t have a finalized schedule yet.”

“I don’t want to pressure you but the time is ticking and my parents would like you to come out a few days early to catch a show in town…” his voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat. “I mean, it’s our first Christmas together and I want to make it special. For you. For us.”

She winced at the hopeful tone in his voice and the tenseness in her neck increased. Her office door opened with a soft whoosh and Brooke, her half-sister and one of the network’s associate producer, entered. Her timing couldn’t be more perfect. Alice motioned to the phone and Brooke nodded.

“I promise I’ll let you know as soon as I know, Richard. I have to go. I have a conference call in less than a minute.” Alice hung up before he could comment, the lie sitting heavy on her lips. The air conditioner kicked in and cool air shot across her shoulders. She rubbed at her chilled arms. Geez, she hoped she wasn’t coming down with something more potent than her annual holiday blues.

“I found this in the side pocket. I figured you’d want it back.” Brooke reached into the designer black purse Alice had lent her, and extracted an antique handkerchief embroidered with silver bells, just like the song that continued to haunt her in the background.

Soon it will be Christmas Day.

“Yes, thank you.” Alice accepted the worn fabric, soft with age and use. This square of linen had soaked up many tears, both happy and sad, since her grandmother had bestowed it upon her. Tucking it into her pocket, she palmed the computer’s mouse and clicked on an email app.

“How is boring Richard?” Brooke plopped down into the chair opposite Alice, crossed her legs, and typed something on her ever-present phone.

Alice scanned her new emails and blew out a breath. It was after four p.m. and still nothing from studio executive Mitchell Graham on her project proposal, the most important show she’d ever pitched. “Richard isn’t boring, he’s thoughtful.”

“Then why did you lie to him? You finished the edits yesterday and you don’t have a conference call.”

“I misspoke. I have some post-production left.” Not entirely a lie, she still had to meet with the marketing team about promos for 3Square, the network’s top-rated cooking show that she created, directed, and produced. “What are you still doing here? I thought you had a date tonight.”

Brooke flipped her straight auburn hair over her shoulder. “Mom made me promise to pin you down for Christmas. She says she found a killer salted caramel cookie recipe and has her DVR set to record sappy holiday movies for our Christmas Day movie marathon.”

“I’m not sure I’m up for watching a bunch of movies where impossible dreams come true. I mean, seriously. Couples who live happily ever after despite wanting to kill each other a few scenes before? I don’t think so.” Once upon a time, she’d have loved a day doing just that. She’d always loved everything about the holiday until ten years ago when she’d been forced to make a heart-wrenching decision that changed the course of her life.

“You mean hopeful and uplifting stories intended to remind us of the true significance of Christmas? Oh cynical one, it could happen to you if you’d just believe,” Brooke said with a tongue-in-cheek grin.

“I don’t need a manufactured Hollywood idea of what romance is. In real life, a man like Richard who remembers your birthday and is courteous enough to put the toilet seat down is all the romance you can expect.”

“Boring.” Brooke slumped deeper into the chair. “Come on, admit it. Isn’t it every girl’s dream to have her Prince Charming ride up on his noble steed—or even better, a vintage Harley like your college boyfriend used to ride? Damned if he didn’t look good in those leather chaps over worn jeans. What ever happened to him?”

“I have no idea, nor do I care. As you know, things didn’t end well between us.” Just thinking about Lance made her stomach churn and not in a good way. Falling for him was a colossal mistake on her part, one she’d never make again.

“So, are you coming for Christmas or not? Mom’s blowing up my phone. Damn, why doesn’t she call you?” Brooke tapped her phone against her chin where a ragged pink scar from a car crash marred her freckled skin. She’d almost died from the loss of blood. Lucky for Brooke, Alice was a blood match. But Brooke wasn’t the only person she matched in the donor bank.

Her Instant Messaging showed two new messages. The first one was from her friend, Grace Chen, a Seattle-area talk-show host and fellow foodie, and the other was from Mitchell.

Finally.

Brooke tapped her foot against the desk, shaking the surface. “Hello, earth to Alice. You really need to work on your listening skills. Las Vegas, cookies, romance movies, Mom…yes, or no?”

“Sorry, you’ll have to suffer without me. I have plans with Richard.” Not entirely a lie. She swallowed the stab of guilt. Alice had made plans with him but she wasn’t certain if she could keep them.

“Then invite him over. Christmas is a time for family, and since you’re engaged to the guy, he’s practically my brother. My rich, boring brother.”

“We’re having Christmas with his family, sorry.” Alice’s relationship with her mother was tenuous at best and she didn’t want to spend time pretending things were fine between them. What she truly wanted was to be left alone for the upcoming hiatus from 3Square. Only hiding out in her apartment was no longer an option. She had to act, and she had to act fast: a girl’s life depended on it.

Shutting her laptop, she stood, heart hammering as she strode to the door. “Sorry Sis, Mitchell wants to see me. I have to go.”

“And that’s my cue to leave.” Brooke hopped to her feet and followed her into the hallway. “Good luck.”

“Thanks. Have fun tonight,” Alice said as she gave a courtesy knock on Mitchell’s door before slipping inside his office. The shades were drawn to block out the late afternoon sun. He sat in an overstuffed office chair, his huge mahogany desk cluttered with stacks of papers, scripts, old coffee cups, and stale-looking pastries he refused to let his assistant take away. Although Alice couldn’t see it, she knew from the sound of his frantic typing that his laptop was wedged behind a mound of magazines. He looked up at her entrance.

“It took you long enough,” he said. His flabby cheeks were ruddy and his greying hair was wild. A well-known broadcast guru, the sixty-something Mitchell was a powerhouse in the industry. Some called him a genius. Alice thought him nuts. But he headed up the Epicurean Network, and she didn’t.

“It’s been”—she looked at her watch—“less than five minutes since your IM.”

“One minute too long.” He stood up and stepped out from behind his desk, his small, rounded frame vibrant with energy despite him being visibly out of shape. “I read the proposal you sent me about the Easter special and I like it. You have good instincts, Alice.”

Alice bit back her sigh of relief and pushed forward. She needed to get a commitment from Mitchell on this project and quick. Time was of the essence and she’d have to plan accordingly. “Did you watch the interview footage I forwarded from Grace Chen on Niko Stavo?”

“Chen.” Mitchell bit her name out, his eyes narrowing. There was no love lost between Mitchell and Grace after she’d told him to go to hell and left her hosting job at 3Square to start her own show in Seattle. “I watched it. I guess she did a decent job.”

Moving to the window, Alice pulled back the heavy blue drape. Mitchell knew full well Grace had done a stellar job on the piece. “Yes, and you can thank her for bringing Stavo and his niece to our attention. I read the application. Did we receive approval from the legal department to approach the contestant?”

“Yes and I have to admit, I was touched here.” He tapped at his heart, or the place where most humans had hearts. “By the answers on the application. Every application has one key question—one of my more brilliant ideas—and that answer was a doozy. Sick kid’s last wish to see the uncle on the show, brilliant.”

She closed her hands into fists, nails biting into her palms before she flexed her fingers. More like sad, tragic, unfortunate that a little girl is dying, but never brilliant. “Since Stavo is a chocolatier, we’d have to revamp the format to showcase desserts. People associate Easter with chocolate so it’s the perfect air date.” Easter would give her enough time to do some investigation on her own. Enough time to find out the truth about Chloe.

“It can’t wait that long. We’ve got to get on this right now. I’m thinking a live show on Christmas Eve. White Christmas all the way. Yep, Christmas Eve will do the trick.”

“A live show on Christmas Eve?” Alice heard the breathiness in her own voice and cleared her throat. Panicking wouldn’t help anyone. She must remain calm and convince him through logic that this idea was utterly insane. She turned her back to the fading sunlight and crossed her arms. “It’s three weeks before Christmas, Mitchell—”

He waved a dismissive hand. “The kid says she was born on Christmas Day. You can’t write this shit. And we’ll need a set big enough to have a Christmas tree and kids sitting around a roaring fire, you in the middle, snow in the background. Hot chocolate all-around…blah…blah…blah…”

“Me in the middle?” she asked, her jaw throbbing from clenching it. This was getting out of hand. “I’m a producer. I don’t get in the shot.”

“You’re a real looker, Alice, and unless you can find another host, it’ll have to be you. Pete’s in the hospital, something about a gallbladder…appendix…doesn’t matter, he says he can’t make it.”

“He’ll be out for six weeks. Even if he were available, he and the crew have plans for the holidays.” Get a handle on this before it blows up in your face. Yes, she’d wanted to film the special for reasons unrelated to work. But not now. Not until she knew. She had to stall Mitchell, to convince him to wait.

“Then call me the miracle maker.” He hiked up his baggy pants and jiggled the change in his pocket, an annoying habit that set her teeth on edge. “Because it’s already done. I offered double time to your crew, and the bastards jumped at it. Your bonus is the Emmy this little gem is going to earn you—”

No. No. No. This isn’t happening. The timing of the special was critical to Alice’s donation to the bone marrow program. With the advances in modern technology, she could’ve taken the tests anywhere but she’d chosen Seattle because she needed a place to recuperate after the procedure and Grace was the only one who knew her secret. And Chloe was there.

“—I tell ya, Alice, this’ll finally cement you that Emmy.” He beamed at her, pleased with himself.

“I don’t even know if Mr. Stavo can be on the show with this short notice.” Alice’s stomach dropped she shifted on her feet, toes curling into her shoes. “We can’t pull this off during the busiest season of the year. We have no venue, no contestants, no judges, no host, although I might be able to talk Grace Chen into hosting,” she said, her mind spinning. The holiday special was Grace’s idea, after all. “I can tell you right now, Seattle doesn’t get a lot of snow. If you want a White Christmas theme, we’ll need to find a snow-making machine. But no matter how much we accomplish, we can’t have a show without contestants.”

He picked up his phone and scrolled through it. “Says here we have 1,117 contracts in Seattle, contracts that state a contestant has four hours to prep for a three-course meal, any time, and any day. They signed up for it, so you have plenty of talent to choose from, and I bet my left hand some of them are like the uncle, Ned…Rick…doesn’t matter—a cook with a sad story to tell. Now make it happen, Alice. Kids, snow, chocolate…oh, and puppies, get some puppies. People love puppies. Kids feeding puppies chocolate, that’s even better.”

“Dogs can die from eating chocolate.” Alice was unsure whether to laugh or cry at the ridiculousness of the conversation.

“Damn dogs.” He scowled as if the fault lie with her. “Fine, nix the dog and chocolate thing. Keep the puppies. They’ll add a nice touch. Now, this two-hour special, it’ll be live on Christmas Eve and we’ll air it all day Christmas Day, and daily afterward until New Year’s, when it’ll play every two hours. You’ll be interviewing the four chefs like normal, but I want you to spend the most time on the sick kid’s uncle. You’re the best at this kind of shit, Alice.” He was blowing smoke up her ass because as executive producer, he expected her to be the best at everything.

“Two hours isn’t enough time to film the entire show, and you’re forgetting about our biggest obstacle, a venue in the busiest banquet season of the year. Even if I find a venue, what if Niko Stavo refuses to be on the show? Then we’re screwed.”

Jingle…jingle went the change. “We have a contract from Chocolate Gastronomy. He’ll say yes or we’ll sue.”

“His niece is dying.” The words nearly stuck in her throat. “Suing him isn’t exactly the humane thing to do.”

“Then make him want to be on the show.” Mitchell frowned, rubbed his forehead, and then straightened. From the intense gleam in his eye, he wasn’t backing down. “Make it happen, Alice.”

Her temples began to throb. She prided herself on her organizational abilities, but she wasn’t a magician. “Mitchell, we can’t film a live show in two hours. Bakers will need at least an hour and a half per round. Maybe we do two shows. Record the first two rounds and broadcast the last round live—” And I’ll be forced to put aside my plans and fly back and forth to Seattle, not an ideal situation.

Mitchell waved her away as he rounded the desk. “Do what you have to do but get it done. Time’s a-wasting.”