Excerpt: Winter Star

In the little café attached to the bookstore, Julie McGee sat with her hands wrapped around a mug of a warm, chocolatey beverage. This was by far one of her favorite places on Earth, from the heady aroma of brewing coffee to the tippy-tap of laptop keys from a nearby table. Of course, there were rows upon rows of shelves making up an impressive sea of books and magazines, any of which might catch her eye as she walked by.

Shoppers milled around checking out the merchandise, most likely picking out gifts for loved ones. Maybe after she finished with her business Julie would give the shelves a decent browsing, see if anything screamed ‘buy me.’

She checked her watch.

Ten minutes past their agreed upon meeting time.

Julie fished her cell phone out of her pocket to see if she might have missed a message, but the screen was blank. Not a single notification.

“Sorry,” apologized the man she’d been waiting for, the only man she’d ever allow to keep her waiting. Hector Leeds plopped into the chair across from her, tufts of red hair curling out from underneath his knit hat. The ginger tendrils almost matched the rosy hue of his freckled cheeks, his light green eyes sparkling. Like everyone else in the city, he was dressed in warm clothes, but still lacked the telltale signs of someone fighting against the bitter winds of winter, no coat or scarf in sight. The brunt of winter had yet to arrive after all. “I tried to get away earlier; my boss had other ideas.” 

“Better late than never,” Julie spoke the old adage. From the pocket of her hoodie she withdrew a package of chocolate-covered crackers that Hector loved. She slipped them across the table in his direction. 

Hector arched an eyebrow. “Is this a bribe or…? What’s the reason for this?” 

“Reason?” Julie shrugged. “Since when do friends require a reason to hang out with each other?” 

“I appreciate the offer,” Hector said. He picked up the treat, the wrapper crinkling under his touch. “Still, you said there was something you wanted to discuss, so what’s up?” 

To stall, Julie sipped her beverage. She’d known Hector since grade school, lucky enough to give him the label of best friend from the day she’d gotten his comic back from a bully. They’d weathered many milestones, and he had been the first one she had come out to on her fifteenth birthday. If she ever found herself wishing for male companionship, which was highly unlikely, Hector topped the list. In other words, if she could trust anyone with a dilemma, it was the man staring at her now. 

“Well, you know how Belle and I wound up crashing at your place for Thanksgiving?” 

“Kind of hard to forget. It was just the other day, after all, and you,” he said, pointing at Julie, “made one of your divine cakes.” 

Julie laughed lightly. “Box cake, Hector, with a few tweaks, that’s all it was, but thanks.” 

“I think our impromptu, thrown together meal was c’est magnifique.” Hector kissed the fingertips of one hand. “Besides, it was an excellent excuse to take a break from my start-up.”

He had a point: the crazy whirlwind of events that brought them to his apartment door had led to a great night of food and laughter. It wasn’t exactly what any of them had planned, but it certainly turned out perfect. Aside from the fact she had to listen to some friendly ridicule about her steadfast desire for  cranberry sauce, the sort that came in a can and was all weirdly jiggly.

“And I can’t thank you enough for letting us take over your night.” 

This time it was Hector who shrugged. “What are friends for? My dinner plans consisted of a frozen turkey dinner and a beer. You two made things better.” He broke off a corner of the cracker. “I still don’t see why we’re here. You already thanked me.” 

Julie sighed, rubbing her arms and averting her gaze. A touch of melancholy seeped into her mood, the pleasant memory diminished. “I’m here because of Belle. It’s bad enough her parents ditched her for Thanksgiving in order to visit her pregnant sister.” At the mention of Belle’s sister, Julie shuddered. “Now they’re going to be gone half of December, maybe even the big day.” 

My poor Jingle Belle. 

“Bummer. You two are more than welcome to spend the holidays with me.” 

“Thanks, Hector,” she smiled softly. “I may take you up on that offer.” 

He frowned, tilting his head slightly as he studied her. Then he reached across the table and took her hand, giving it a squeeze. “Something else is bothering you. Tell me. Please?” 

“I saw her crying last night,” confessed Julie. She cast her mind back, hating the way it made her feel to see the woman she loved hurt by her family, even though they probably didn’t realize it. 

They’d gone to bed last night under the guise everything was okay. Around midnight she’d rolled over with the intent to snuggle up to her gal only to find the other side of the bed cold and empty. Murmured voices and curiosity had dragged her from the warmth of the blanket to the bedroom door, a faint glow coming from the direction of the living room. 

That was where she had found Belle, her beloved, lying on the couch clutching a pillow. Though the TV had been out of sight, Julie had known the familiar dialogue belonged to a holiday classic about a smart little boy outwitting some crooks. Belle had sniffled, swiping the back of her hand over her eyes. 

The sight had caused Julie to bite down on her lip, torn between going over to comfort Belle and leaving her to her private moment. In the end she had gone back to bed, knowing all too well how Belle often hid her tears, keeping them secret. Falling asleep again had proven hard. 

She relayed it all to Hector. “This time of year has always been important to her, you know. You know her parents adore her, but they’ve decided to try reconciling with Prue, and Belle’s taking this a lot harder than I expected. Though I totally get why she’s hiding her pain from me. So I want to do something special for her. Something to put the cheer back into the holidays.” If that’s even possible. She looked so crestfallen after they called. 

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