I took his challenge and I was the one who smiled the whole way through writing it.
Here's the long blurb for my story (the one that wouldn't fit on the back of the book!):
Natalie Ekins is on the pathway to success. She’s dating a gorgeous lawyer who’s up for a promotion, has a fabulous internship at Alderman Ad Agency, and her boss just gave her the opportunity to turn her dream internship into her dream job. Just make a killer ad for a new children’s toy and the job is hers. The only problem is that Natalie doesn’t know anything about kids. Or toys.
When Natalie’s best friend, Janessa, invites her to come home for Christmas, Natalie accepts, hoping that she’ll have ample quiet time to work on her ad. She doesn’t anticipate the over-the-top Christmas wonderland at her friend’s house, the Six Days of Christmas Tradition that is taking up way too much time, and grandchildren who invade her space and somehow seem to be multiplying.
And she definitely doesn’t expect Jimmy, her best friend’s brother. Although she can’t help but notice how well Jimmy’s grown into himself, he’s as infuriating as ever: teasing her, daring her, distracting her… Natalie has to stay focused on finishing her ad and reminding herself that she and her boyfriend are the perfect fit, especially with Jimmy making her question what she really wants.
I want to share the first chapter with you here... I hope you enjoy :)
Natalie Ekins flicked one of the bright colored Magneto Blocks she had spread across the floor. How could so much of her future depend on a toy? A pretty lame toy, actually. She stacked a few of them together, alternating red, green, red, green and racked her brain for an idea. This was what she was going to school for, what this whole internship at Alderman Ad Agency had been about. This was her chance to get her dream job, and it was about to get blown because she knew nothing about children.
“I need that contract emailed to me in the next fifteen minutes if it’s going to make a difference,” Natalie’s boyfriend, Grant Leaver, said from where he sat at her kitchen table. Natalie stopped playing with the blocks so she could watch Grant talk on the phone. He still wore his suit from work, but he’d draped his suit coat on the back of her couch and loosened his tie. She’d met Grant almost six months before at a company party—just weeks after starting her internship—and they’d hit it off right away. He was one of the ad agency’s lawyers and was the only person she knew who was as driven as her.
“Save me, please?” Natalie pled after he hung up his cell phone with a terse goodbye.
Grant tore his gaze from his computer for a second, a black eyebrow raised against his olive forehead. “The Nat I know can save herself.”
“Yes, but look at this. Toys.”
“And, I don’t know anything about kids! How am I supposed to win this thing if I can’t even figure out why this product would appeal to someone?”
“You’ll figure something out.”
Natalie ran her fingers through her blonde hair with a sigh. She’d think of something—but would it be better than what anyone else thought of? There were five other interns vying for a full time job after graduation in six months, and only one position. Robert Billings, her boss, had designed a contest using a new product from one of their clients. They were to take the product, come up with an ad campaign, and turn in their idea before the end of the year. Whoever had the best ad got a full-time job with Alderman after completing grad school in the spring.
Since Natalie got hired on, she’d been dying for a chance to work with Fantastique—Alderman’s number one client that dealt in make-up, perfume, and hair product. She’d even come up with several sexy ideas for their new cosmetic line: Luminescence.
Instead, Billings called a meeting, explained the competition, and handed out a bag of blocks. How in the world would Natalie make blocks appealing to anyone? They were the last toy she’d ever want to play with. At least give her a doll or a play make-up set. That, she could work with. Now, unless she could come up with a killer idea to sell Magneto Blocks, she’d never get on the Fantasique team.
“I need to brainstorm.” Natalie stood and walked to the kitchen, giving Grant a peck on the cheek before grabbing a water bottle from the fridge. “Blocks. Kids play with blocks. They stack. Bright colors. These ones have magnets on them. Why? So they stick together better? What about that feature makes it more appealing to children?”
She looked at Grant for an answer, but he’d already returned his attention back to whatever he was working on. “Grant.”
“Hmmm?” He angled his head as if to show he was listening, but his fingers still kept tapping over the keys.
“The toy? Brainstorming here?”
Grant mumbled something unintelligible, then snagged his phone before it even finished its first ring. “I still haven’t received the Archer contract,” he barked, his complete attention back on the computer.
Natalie sighed. Grant’s dedication to his work was one of the things that she liked most about him. Two driven people in a driven relationship. Together, they were going places. With him, she knew she’d never be carted around the world on humanitarian trips, uprooted every few months, always hoping there was enough money to live off of. No, with Grant she was stable. Secure. Successful.
Jingle bells jangled against the door as Janessa, Natalie’s roommate, walked into their apartment. “Brrr. It’s cold out there!” she exclaimed, shutting the door loudly behind her. Grant shot Janessa a glare and pointed to the phone at his ear. Client, he mouthed, obviously annoyed.
“Sorry,” she said. Not, she mouthed to Natalie as she unwound the knitted scarf from around her neck. Janessa’s long brown hair lifted with static that she tried unsuccessfully to smooth down.
“Be good, please,” Natalie begged quietly. Over and over she’d heard that Grant was arrogant and self-absorbed, and Janessa was flaky and immature. Nothing she said so far could convince the other that they were both awesome people. At this point, Grant and Janessa barely tolerated each other for Natalie’s sake, but she was willing to take what she could get.
“What’s all this?” Janessa plopped herself beside Natalie on the couch and rooted around the cushions for the television remote control.
“Work. Some dumb contest that I have to win or I lose everything I’ve worked for.”
“Exactly. At least I’ll have something to work on for the next couple of weeks.”
Janessa put the television on mute. “Aren’t you spending Christmas break with your parents?”
“They bailed again.” Natalie batted her blue eyes and held her hands under her chin. “‘We can’t leave all these children, Natalie. They need us,’” she mimicked her mother’s saccharine, sweet voice.
“So wrong. I know you’re anti-travel and all, but can’t you fly down there for a few days?”
“Nope. My passport expired. So my parents and the children of the Honduran orphanage are just going to have Christmas without me. It’s really not a big deal. I’m used to it.”
Natalie sank down beside her blocks with a shrug. “I’m honestly not all that into Christmas anyway. I deal with enough commercialism at work.”
Janessa sat up suddenly, her feet knocking down one of Natalie’s block towers. Natalie noted that the tower mostly stayed together after falling. Another selling point? Can accidentally get knocked over, but won’t destroy all of your hard work. She grabbed her notebook to write that down.
“Oh!” Janessa grabbed Natalie’s shoulder. “I have the best idea. You have to say yes.”
“She doesn’t have to ‘say yes’ to anything, Janessa,” Grant said.
Fire lit Janessa’s gaze and she sat up straighter. “Mind your own business, Grant.”
“Maybe if you weren’t so pushy all the time.”
“Oh, that’s hilarious, Nat. Did you hear that? Grant Leaver just called me pushy.”
Natalie rolled her eyes to the sky and prayed for patience. “Guys, stop. This is ridiculous.” She pointed at Janessa—who already had an open mouth and a battle-ready posture. “And don’t say he started it. Please, just try to get along.”
“Okay.” Janessa took a deep breath and pointedly turned her back on Grant. “As I was saying, before I was rudely interrupted, I have the best idea ever.”
“Grant, shut it.” Natalie threw him a stern look. This was really getting ridiculous. Natalie usually hung out at Grant’s apartment, but his roommate was having his parents over for dinner and neither of them wanted to be there for that. Luckily Grant’s phone rang again and he was too distracted to mock Janessa anymore.
“So my mom called today. She’s kind of upset because Jimmy just told her that he’s not coming home for Christmas this year.”
“Where’s Jimmy going to be?” Jimmy was Janessa’s younger brother by a couple of years. They’d all hung out in high school—or at least Janessa and Natalie hung out while Jimmy got his kicks out of annoying the girls in any way possible.
“His girlfriend’s parents.” Janessa made a sour face.
“Is he still with the girl that speaks like everything is a question?”
“Uptalk Girl? Yes. I don’t know how Jimmy can stand it. ‘I love your shirt? I’m hungry? I want to have your babies?’” Janessa fluttered her eyelashes.
Natalie knew she shouldn’t laugh at this poor girl, but couldn’t help it. She’d never met Jimmy’s girlfriend—in fact it had been years since she’d even seen Jimmy. But Janessa always liked to give Natalie updates on what he was up to when she got back from visiting Phoenix to see her mom. Natalie’s parents had sold their home in Phoenix after she’d graduated from high school so they could travel the world freely for humanitarian efforts.
“Anyway, Jimmy’s not coming, and without him, I’m going to be home all alone with the newlyweds.”
“Oh, no. Are your mom and Stan all icky-lovey-dovey?”
“No, thank heavens. But he’s weird, and I need a buffer. And that’s where my great idea comes in.”
Natalie shook her head before Janessa could finish. She knew where this was going. “Not happening.”
“Please, Natalie. Come home with me for Christmas. I promise that we’ll have way more fun than you’ll have here by yourself.”
“I have Grant.”
“Grant’s probably working anyway. And my mom’s house is only a three hour drive from here. He can come down and stay for a few days, too.”
Natalie laughed. “You must be desperate if you’re inviting Grant.”
“I’m totally desperate. I should have thought of this sooner. You, Natalie, have the power to save my Christmas. Having you come home with me would be like my own personal Christmas miracle.”
Should she go home with Janessa? Natalie picked up one of the colorful blocks while she debated and ran her thumb across the smooth edge. These things were pretty heavy. If she threw one at the window, there was a good chance it would break. Maybe she should write that down in her notebook, except it wasn’t really a selling point.
Focus. Janessa’s house. It could be fun. She’d always loved Janessa’s mom. And Grant did just mention that he’d picked up another client and he’d be working overtime for the next few months, which meant a lot more nights of sitting together on the couch, each on their own computer, working. She liked it that way, really, but could admit that it was a little lonely sometimes. He could come down for Christmas day. She knew he wouldn’t be thrilled about it, but he’d do it for her. And maybe a change of scenery was just what she needed in order to come up with a winning idea.
“Who am I to deny you of your Christmas miracle?” The last of her words were lost in Janessa’s squeal-and-tackle-hug that took Natalie down onto her pile of blocks. “I have to make sure that I get a lot of time to work on my ad campaign. This is really important for me to win.”
“You will, you will, I promise. You’ll see. This is going to be the best Christmas ever!”
Natalie rolled away from the blocks digging into her back. Really sharp edges. Maybe she should write that down. Janessa pulled out her phone to text her mom while Natalie wrote down her latest observation of the awful blocks. Unfortunately, those blocks were her ticket to a successful life.
She didn’t care about having the best Christmas ever. She only cared about making sure she came up with the winning ad and turned her dream internship into her dream job.
Natalie dragged her large suitcase behind her and hiked her duffel bag higher on her shoulder as she knocked on the Janessa’s mom’s front door. The bright red and green sparkle Christmas wreath was only a minor dab on the gaudy Christmas painting of Janessa’s mom’s house. Natalie was pretty sure she’d seen their lit up house from over a mile away as that faint glow that lit up the dusky sky.
Stan must have had an unhealthy affinity for Christmas decorations because Janessa’s house had never been so…festive. A full size sleigh with nine reindeer sat on the roof. Colorful, twinkling Christmas lights covered nearly every available square inch of house—roof, wall, porch, and even the walkway that led to the street. On one side of the yard, a functioning train with a nutcracker conductor circled elves, Santa, and other Christmas themed blow-up decorations. And on the other side—oh, no that was just wrong. Nestled in bales of hay they’d set up a nativity, and in place of baby Jesus in the manger was a baby Santa. Wearing a baby Santa suit. Okay, baby Santa was actually kind of cute, with his plump, rosy cheeks, the tiny Santa clothes, and someone had even painted a loveable little sparkle in his right eye, but still. Wrong in so many, many ways.
The wreath jingled and jangled, and a shower of glitter fell to the “Welcome to our Ho-Ho-Home” welcome mat when Janessa’s mom answered the door.
“Natalie!” Janessa’s mom pulled her into a Janessa-type suffocating hug that managed to make Natalie feel both unable to breathe and extremely welcome all at the same time. Janessa’s mom rocked with her side to side and said, “I am so glad you could make it.”
“Thanks for having me, Mrs. Clouse.”
“I’ve told you again and again to call me Anne,” Janessa’s mom said.
“I know. Thank you, Anne.” The name felt awkward coming from Natalie’s mouth.
Anne laughed and took Natalie’s duffel bag before leading her into the cinnamon-scented house. “Seriously, my name is not a four-letter word. Actually, it does have four letters, but you know what I mean. You don’t have to do that little choke thing every time you say it.”
Ah, Janessa’s family. Always so honest. It just wasn’t in them to politely pretend they didn’t notice other people’s awkward moments.
Jimmy had always been the worst at remembering every, little embarrassing thing. One bright spot of him not being there for the holidays was that she’d get a reprieve of reliving The Underwear Incident of senior year. Natalie had a feeling that Jimmy was never going to let her live that one down. She’d just as soon forget that she’d ever been that socially awkward teen who traveled so much she only had two good friends: Janessa and Jimmy.
“Janessa had to run to the store real quick, but she should be home any minute now.” Anne led Natalie down the hallway. “Stan’s in the kitchen starting dinner, so after you get settled come on down and meet him.”
Anne opened a bedroom door and threw Natalie’s bag onto the floor next to a dusty weight set. “I’m going to have you stay in Jimmy’s old room for a few nights. You and Janessa will probably have to bunk up together once Stan’s kids get here, but at least you can have your own bed for a few days.”
Natalie looked around the room after Anne left, remembering the fun Janessa, Jimmy, and Natalie had when they were younger. Stan’s Christmas love hadn’t reached this room, so it still looked the same as Natalie remembered—even though she hadn’t been in here in almost three years. Blue plaid bedspread. Bookshelf filled with sci-fi and fantasy novels. A picture of Jimmy and Janessa together on her graduation night exactly how Natalie remembered him: over a head taller than Janessa, mostly knees and elbows, long-ish brown hair, thick glasses, and his trademark mischievous smile that always seemed to be daring Natalie to do something that would get her into trouble.
Natalie washed her hands in Jimmy’s bathroom after pulling the clothes out of her bag that she didn’t want getting wrinkled.
She stared intently in the bathroom mirror when she spotted something. Wait, was that…? There was no way she was this lucky. Yes, her parents had abandoned her right at Christmastime and she’d fallen into some sort of Christmas-themed rabbit hole, but this might make up for everything.
She crouched down beside the toilet and retrieved the bikini waxing kit she’d spotted. He’d been a swimmer in high school, but he would never talk shaving with the girls. Now she had proof. And did he still swim, or why the heck was he waxing? She did not want to know, but he deserved the teasing she was going to dish.
Except he wasn’t coming home for Christmas, and she didn’t know when their paths might cross again. She picked up the box anyway and put it into her suitcase. She was so getting the address of where he was staying for Christmas to send this to him. Maybe he’d even open it in front of his girlfriend.That would teach him to keep his mouth shut the next time she saw him.
Move over, Underwear Incident. Bikini Wax was moving in.
Natalie didn’t even realize she was humming a Christmas tune until a painfully tall and even painfully thinner man in a Santa Clause sweater began to sing along with a surprisingly deep baritone voice.
“And saints, and saints, and angels sing,” he finished with a low note that should not have been possible outside of a tuba. Natalie clapped as he took a bow.
“Stan Clouse,” he said, extending his hand. “And you must be Natalie.”
“I am. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m glad you could come here for Christmas. It’s kind of a big deal for me, so I want to make sure that we include any Christmas traditions that you’re used to. I love hearing about what other people do and adding other’s traditions to our own.”
Natalie nodded and followed Stan into the kitchen. “Um, thanks. We never really did much for Christmas, though.”
Stan stopped in his tracks. “Nothing?”
Natalie shrugged, feeling like she’d said something wrong. “We traveled a lot when I had breaks from school. My parents usually remember to get me a gift,” her words faded.
“Okay. Wow.” Stan shook his head and let out a deep breath. “You’re in the right place. We’re going to show you how Christmas should be done.”
Natalie followed him into the kitchen for dinner, taking in the kitschy Christmas decorations filling every available nook and counter space, a leaf-and-bulb-filled garland wrapping around the banister and doorways, and way too many cowboy-themed Santa figurines for any one family, and suddenly Stan’s promise felt more like a threat.