Santa Shortbread

santa shortbread

Here is a free sample of Santa Shortbread for your reading pleasure!

Link to details and buy links

chapter-1

drop-cap-erin spoke to young Peter Foster as he bent close to the bakery display case, examining the newest gluten-free treats with his younger sisters.

“What are you going to make for Christmas?” he asked. “You made lots of really good cookies last year.”

“We will again this year,” Erin assured him. “I just met with Charley, my partner, on the weekend. We have a nice list of what we are going to have for you this year. We’re going to do some of the little one-bite desserts like we had at Thanksgiving.”

She saw the disappointment chase across his face.

“I know you didn’t like the pumpkin tarts and gingerbread, but that won’t be all that we have. And there will be lots of different kinds of cookies. I’m going to make some cut-out shortbread cookies. You’ll like those, and we can do all kinds of fun shapes.”

“Christmas shapes?”

“Yes, of course. Stars and trees and gingerbread men and snowmen. All kinds of things.”

“Santa?” one of the little girls asked, bouncing up and down. Her sticky fingers were on the glass of the display case and either Erin or her assistant Vic was going to have to clean it again after they left, but Erin didn’t mind. She loved her littlest customers, the Fosters especially.

Erin looked at Vic and glanced at Mrs. Foster to see what they thought. Vic had warned her against using too many secular symbols of Christmas. Bald Eagle Falls was in the Bible belt, and they had to be careful not to offend the customers who didn’t want to see pagan symbols or a lot of commercial crap around their religious holiday.

“I’m sure we can do some Santas,” Vic agreed and, after a moment Mrs. Foster nodded too. The kids had won that round. They were so inundated through the media that they couldn’t be expected to be completely blind to Santa and the other commercial offerings.

“And the Grinch?” Peter demanded. “You have to do the Grinch!”

Erin laughed. “Hmm. I’ll have to see what I can find. We’re going into the city to look for some new cookie cutters, and I’ll have to see if I can find a Grinch. I haven’t seen any around.”

“That would be cool. We’d buy them.”

“The Grinch is green,” Karen contributed.

“Yes, I would have to make green cookies or frosting,” Erin agreed.

“Green cookies! You can’t make green cookies!”

“I certainly can.”

“How?”

“Magic,” Erin teased. Then, thinking better of the comment, changed her mind. “Just with green food coloring, Karen. It’s really easy.”

“I haven’t had green cookies before.”

“Then I’ll have to make some for sure, won’t I? What did you guys want today?”

They made their choices for the kids’ cookie club and Vic handed them out. Mrs. Foster ordered the baked goods she would need for the week and stood with her hand on her slightly-protruding belly while she waited for it all to be wrapped up and totaled.

“I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t thank you enough for all of the lovely gluten-free baking you do. I used to have to do so much extra baking to make something safe for Peter so that he could have something other than the packaged baking from the city. And half the time it didn’t even turn out. I always felt bad that he didn’t have any choices and just had the same kind of cookies and bread over and over again. Now… it’s just so nice to come here and know that he can have anything in the bakery, and it’s all so good!”

Erin flashed a look at Peter. “Even if he doesn’t like pumpkin pie!”

“Mom says lots of kids don’t like pumpkin pie.”

“But I do,” Mrs. Foster assured Erin. “And I much prefer yours to the ones at the grocery store!”

When the Fosters had gone, there was a lull. Vic went around the display case to wipe down fingerprints.

“I’ll be right back,” Erin told her. “I need to fix my hair.”

Several dark strands had escaped her hairpins and baker’s hat, so Erin ducked into the commode to look in the mirror while she took care of it all and then washed up again. Vic, with her long, blond hair, seemed to be able to manage to keep hers tidy and out of her face all day, but Erin frequently had to take a break at some point to get hers back in order. Maybe she should grow hers longer so that she could pull it into a ponytail or bun rather than trying to keep the shorter locks pinned back.

She returned to the front of the bakery, looking presentable again, and smiled at the approaching customers. It was getting noticeably busier as Christmas approached and people were buying more baking for parties, presents, and preparing ahead for their Christmas meals.

Melissa was one of the latest customers. She gave Erin a broad smile and stepped up eagerly to look into the display case. While she lived alone, Erin knew that she would be hosting a dinner for some of the other single women in her church group, and later on Christmas day would be off to the penitentiary to see her friend, Davis Plaint. Melissa never referred to him as a boyfriend or in a romantic way, and wouldn’t mention him in front of the other church ladies. Erin often found herself puzzling over their unusual relationship.

“What would you like today?” Erin asked. “Need anything for the department?”

“I think it would be nice if someone other than me sprang for muffins for the police department now and then,” Melissa said with an irritated shake of her head that set her dark spiraling curls bouncing. “I only work there part-time, so my paycheck is lower than anyone else’s. Maybe Clara or the sheriff could buy them sometime.”

Vic’s eyebrows climbed. “I always thought you got reimbursed for those.”

“No, it’s just out of the kindness of my heart. Seems to me it’s time for someone else to buy them this time.”

Erin nodded uncomfortably. She had taken muffins over to the police department herself occasionally but like Vic, she had always thought that Melissa’s purchases were covered by her employer. She would mention it to Officer Terry Piper when she saw him later in the day. She was sure they didn’t mean to take advantage of Melissa; probably no one had ever thought twice about it. “Something for you, then?”

“A person can only do so much,” Melissa muttered. “With all that I do for the department, they could show some appreciation.”

“Yes,” Erin agreed. “Everyone likes to be recognized for what they do. Anything interesting going on lately?”

Erin didn’t usually encourage Melissa’s gossip about the police department or crimes going on in Bald Eagle Falls, but she felt the situation called for a little distraction.

Melissa leaned forward. “Actually…” She looked dramatically left and right to see if anyone were listening in. There were customers behind her, but they were waiting patiently and didn’t appear to be eavesdropping. Though Melissa put on a show of being discreet, she preferred an audience. “Have you heard of the Grinch?”

“We were just talking to the Fosters about the Grinch,” Erin laughed. “They want me to make green Grinch cookies for Christmas.”

“No, not the Dr. Seuss character. The real Grinch.”

Vic leaned on the display case. “There is no real Grinch.”

Melissa nodded vigorously. “There is. At first, we didn’t think it was anything more than the usual holiday thefts. You know, there are always a few cars broken into, usually in the city. People leave newly purchased gifts in full view and then are surprised when someone breaks into their car in the parking lot. But Bald Eagle Falls has had an unusual rash of thefts the past couple of weeks.”

“What counts as a rash of thefts?” Erin asked.

“I don’t know for sure how many have been reported; I haven’t filed all of the reports. But there have been house and car thefts, with some pricey items stolen.”

“More than normal.”

“There are always some. But there have been a couple of families…” Melissa frowned and shook her head. “They’ve lost all of their Christmas gifts. Folks in this part of Tennessee are not wealthy; some families really have to scrape to get a few things together for the little ones. And when someone like the Grinch comes along and takes everything away… there’s nothing they can do. They can’t afford to replace them.”

“Oh… what about their homeowner’s insurance—can’t they make a claim?”

“Even if they can, if their deductible isn’t too high and it’s worthwhile to make a claim, they’re not going to get the money in time for Christmas.”

“That’s so sad!” Vic exclaimed. “Who would do something like that?”

“The Grinch,” Melissa said, giving a nod. “You see? Whoever it is, they’re stealing Christmas from the children of Bald Eagle Falls.”

Erin and Vic shook their heads. Bald Eagle Falls was a small community, close-knit, and it was hard to believe that anyone would want to hurt their neighbors that way. Especially little children.

“That’s just terrible.” Erin looked down at the products on display. She was mindful of the fact that there were other people lined up behind Melissa, so they couldn’t gossip for long. “What do you think you would like today, then? We have chocolate chip muffins.” She knew Melissa’s weakness for anything with chocolate in it.

Melissa frowned, examining the various possibilities, and then returned to the chocolate chip muffins that Erin had pointed out and decided, “I do think it is a chocolate chip muffin kind of day.”

chapter-2

drop-cap-erin knew that Officer Terry Piper was working a modified afternoon shift, and watched to see if he would stop in at Auntie Clem’s Bakery while he was on patrol. He and K9 were happy to be getting out of the house after Terry had been sidelined with a head injury and been choked out by an assailant. Neither one of them liked being cooped up all day with nothing to do. But Terry was still suffering from headaches and wasn’t yet able to put in a full shift.

Under his old routine, Terry would stop in for water partway through the afternoon on a hot day, and for a cookie and doggie biscuit around closing time. The weather was chilly so close to Christmas, so they didn’t need the extra water, but she was still hoping for a visit at the end of the workday, when they would be getting off work as well. But as she turned the sign on the door over to ‘Closed,’ there was no sign of her boyfriend and his furry sidekick. Vic wiped down the display case.

“No visit from Officer Handsome today?” she teased.

“Doesn’t look like it.” Erin let out a sigh and left the door unlocked, just in case he came by before they were finished. “Hopefully, that means he went home and not that he’s stuck at the office or dealing with a case.”

“The sheriff said they’d make sure he didn’t work too long.”

“Hopefully,” Erin repeated.

They fell into the usual rhythm closing out the till, cleaning up, and mixing up batters that would soak overnight for the next morning’s muffins and breads.

“Grinch cookies,” Vic recalled with a laugh. “I wonder if we’ll be able to find some cookie cutters.”

“Even if we can’t find one that’s specifically The Grinch, we could make Santa cookies and give him a green face. It wouldn’t be perfect, but people would know what they were supposed to be.”

“Perfect,” Vic declared. “Great idea.”

Erin drove herself and Vic home as usual. Vic lived in the loft apartment over Erin’s garage, so when they were on the same shift, they almost always drove together. Vic didn’t have a car of her own and was constantly getting after Erin to replace her old clunker. But Erin didn’t like to spend more money than she had to, an attitude that had carried over from her lean years, even though she finally had money in the bank from cashing in on a crop of wild ginseng.

“One of these days, it’s not going to make it,” Vic commented, shaking her head at Erin’s car. “It sounds worse than ever.”

“I’ll take it in for an oil change. That’s all it needs.”

“It needs a lot more than that,” Vic said with authority. “Timing belt. New transmission. The electrical is all screwed up…” She had probably fixed up a lot of cars with her brothers on the farm before she had come out as transgender and been forced to leave home.

“It still runs.”

“Until the day it doesn’t.”

“If I only use it for tooling around Bald Eagle Falls, I’ll be safe. If we go out to the city, we can use Terry’s or Willie’s truck.”

“Or you could get a new car.”

“Not yet.”

Vic shook her head. They walked up the sidewalk together. “Looks like Terry’s home. Say ‘hi’ for me.”

“I will. You and Willie going out, or are you going to come over for dinner?”

“We’ll do something together. You can have Terry to yourself today.”

“Okay. Have a good night, Vicky.”

Vic walked around to the back and Erin let herself in the front door. Despite the fact that she had a perfectly good garage, it currently held Clementine’s old Volkswagen, so she and the others always parked in front of the house instead.

She gave a mental shrug and walked up to the house. She opened the door and checked the burglar alarm and saw that it had already been disarmed.

“Terry?”

She heard the bathroom door open and Terry walked out of the hall. Orange Blossom darted past him with a yowl. Marshmallow hopped sedately out from behind the couch.

“Hi, guys.” Erin bent down to scratch the rabbit’s ears and Orange Blossom practically climbed into her arms, complaining loudly. Probably about the presence of K9, who he’d had plenty of time to get used to.

Erin made understanding noises to Orange Blossom, acknowledging his chatter, and looked at Terry with a smile, rolling her eyes.

Terry shook his head. “I think you might be thirty seconds late getting home; he’s been pacing around here making a racket.”

“Oh, is that the problem?” Erin pressed her cheek against Orange Blossom’s head and squeezed him. “Well, I’m here now, so stop complaining.”

He instead started with a rumbling purr. Erin scratched his ears. “That’s better.”

Erin studied Terry’s face. “How are you doing?” There were lines around his eyes and he seemed pale. “Are you in pain? Do you want something for your head?”

“Mostly I’m just tired out.” Terry thought about it. “Actually, I guess I might need a painkiller too. It’s hard for me to tell, sometimes.” He pressed his fingers to his temples. “I start feeling tired and foggy, and it takes a while to figure out I’ve got a headache.”

“Let me get one of your pills.”

“I can do it.”

Erin shook her head. “No, sit down and relax, I’ll get you one.” She put Orange Blossom down and ignored his renewed complaints as she went into the bedroom and retrieved one of Terry’s prescription pills. She got him a glass of water from the kitchen and returned to where he was sitting in the living room. Terry passed his hand over his face, looking slightly gray.

“I don’t like to take too many of these,” he said, taking it from her and swallowing it down with the water.

“You are allowed to take them when you need them. It doesn’t help you to be in pain.”

“But it doesn’t help me to be dopey either. I don’t want to spend the days in a haze.”

“If they’re too strong, then you can ask the doctor to prescribe a lower dose. But he won’t know unless you tell him.”

Terry nodded once. “Yes, you’re right,” he agreed. He went back to rubbing his temples. “I was going to have something ready for us to eat. Or at least to get started on supper.”

“Don’t worry about it. I can get something ready. You must be hungry.”

“Not really. More nauseated than anything.”

He had obviously waited too long after his headache had started. Once that nausea had set in, it tended to stay the rest of the evening. He had wanted to lose a few pounds after their cruise but, since the attack, he’d lost more than he should.

“What could you eat? Could I make you a smoothie? Some yogurt? What wouldn’t bother your stomach?”

“I don’t know. Give it a little while; maybe it will feel better after the pill kicks in.”

Erin knew very well that it wouldn’t. But he was a grown man and needed to be in control of his own body and life more than he needed her to mother him.

“Okay… but try to have something later. Don’t just skip eating.”

Terry grimaced, not looking at her. “I’ll try. Later.”

“And if you want me to go out and get something…” Erin offered. “If there is something you think you could eat…”

“No, you don’t need to make a special trip for me.”

Erin left him sitting on the couch. K9 was in the kitchen waiting for her, standing close to the cookie jar and looking her way with pleading eyes. He was very well-behaved, but he seemed put out that it had taken her so long to get there.

“Aren’t you being patient,” Erin crooned. “And such a gentleman. Unlike some animals around here…” She looked pointedly at Orange Blossom, who meowed loudly in exasperation that he hadn’t yet received a treat.

Erin got all of the animals treats and checked the fridge for dinner inspiration. Her usual fallback was leftover bread or buns from Auntie Clem’s with some locally-sourced jam. But she was making an effort to take care of her body better and eat something other than straight sugar and carbs, so she made herself look at the vegetables to see if she could put together a salad.

Vegetables were really not her thing, except for the ones that Vic had made at Thanksgiving, with lots of buttery sauces or nuts in caramelized sugar. Those had been really good. But she suspected that the benefits from the vitamins they contained would be counteracted by all of the fat and sugar, which would go straight to her hips and, with her small frame, every extra pound showed.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Santa Shortbread

By P.D. Workman

Buy Links

Tell me what you think!