Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Is letter writing redundant? by Priscilla Brown

Regretfully, no characters in these contemporary romances write personal letters.
 In future stories, maybe I should make sure they do!

Here, I am considering personal letters, not business or formal communications. In today's time-poor society (or perceived as such)  it's quicker and easier to phone, text, email or message. And there are times and situations where immediacy is essential.But isn't there something anticipatory about receiving a hand-addressed envelope? Open it, find a sheet of paper filled with handwriting - you know the writer has taken the time and effort to think of you.

Checking in my local newsagency I found several differently designed quality writing pads with matching envelopes, and boxed compendiums of attractive paper and envelopes. I asked the manager how the items sold. She told me that while the pads and envelopes on the whole were fairly slow sellers, those pads clearly designed for a child's use do sell, hopefully for the child to write thank you letters, and indicating that parents encourage children to write; others were bought mostly by women. The compendiums are popular especially close to Christmas, she assumes for gifts. And for writing thank you letters!

 So, other than thank you, why write? A few thoughts...

- reminisce on a good time you've had together
- someone you know, or sense, is in trouble, lonely, needs encouragement
- you've lost touch, want to repair a friendship
- forge a friendship with someone you know only casually
- take time to think things through, or apologise, clarifying comments that may be misunderstood in person or on the phone
- introduce a topic of mutual interest, leading to an epistolary conversation

- invite the recipient into the sender's world with descriptions of experiences, feelings, concerns
- recommend with details a book or movie
- with family, share thoughts and information which can be saved for future generations

Further to this, a nearby family is having a house built on previously vacant land. They are writing notes on their current lives to be dated, sealed in non-rusting container, and buried in what will become the garden. The seven-year-old wrote about his school; his four-year-old brother who could write his name dictated to the older child to write about his swimming lessons; for their two-year-old sister, Mr7 wrote her name, age and added kisses. Each parent will write notes to future parents.

Personalised and preferably handwritten letters are social currency with more of a human connection than is possible via technology. I believe such letter writing will not become redundant as long as we acknowledge a fundamental need to keep in touch on a deeper level.

As I cannot write personally to each of you, please imagine that I have handwritten (yes, you can read my writing!) on quality white writing paper using a blue pen, neatly folded into a matching envelope,  a letter bringing all good wishes for 2020. 

May the year be kind to you. And, of course, with lots of wonderful reading. 


Sunday, December 29, 2019

Harlots & Nightingales

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 Buried in the depths of Hulu is a series based on Harris's Guide to the Ladies of Covent Garden, an erotic guide book to the prostitutes who worked the area. This little magazine was issued every year, at a cost 2 shillings + in London during the period 1757-1795. As the charms and specialities of each woman were described in sometimes graphic detail, it was titillating reading in and of itself. 

Having spent a lot of time imagining exactly that time period in the course of working on various novels, I was instantly drawn in. As befits a British production, the costuming and the opening street scenes on the poor side of town were thrillingly authentic, full of piss, drunks, poverty and danger. I confess, I'm completely addicted to Harlots, which has more engaging characters and more twists, turns and heart-breaks in one episode than some series contain in an entire season. 

Way beyond the soft core flash, Harlots is genuine women's history, served straight up. (!) It's written by women and a stern female gaze informs every scene and every line of dialogue. It made me realize, so much more than the tepid statement: "women had no property rights," that these women were property/chattel, just like their client's carriage horses. 

A woman belonged to her father until she belonged to her husband. If she was married off to a gross rich old man or to a violent young one, she might still be lucky enough to become a widow. Only then would she have a chance to control her own life. In a terrific scene at the end of the first series, an aristocratic woman confides that she doesn't care who killed her husband, but if his whore knows who did, she only wants to say "thank-you."

The best a harlot could hope for was a rich and congenial "keeper," a man who would protect what belonged (often by contract) to him. During Georgian times, in London, one in five women was engaged in the sex trade. There were many sociological factors bringing this heart-breaking statistic about, but whatever was the cause, young women flooded into town from impoverished rural families looking for work as domestics. Even if they were fortunate enough to avoid being recruited or even kidnapped for sex work, they were utterly dependent and could easily be forced into sex with their masters. The practice survives today, in the form of workplace sexual harassment.  

If you think those bad old days are over, take a look at the headlines in the past few years about the trials of women working in the entertainment (and the infotainment) businesses. This also happens in the course of ordinary employment, in offices, in restaurants, where tipped workers are paid (in my state $2.83/hr.) and in factories where women, in ever increasing numbers, have gone to work.  One reason for the vulnerability of working women is because even college educated women are not paid what men are paid for producing exactly the same work. Moreover, the color of your skin decides exactly how much less than a man you will earn. Poor women discover that they can make a great deal more "on the game" than working at a minimum wage job, so, if they are young or need to make their own hours because their children are young and daycare impossible because of cost, sex work might still seem to be the only option. 

The Viennese novels I've written are about the morally sketchy entertainment business, true then as now. Singers, actresses, and dancers enjoy fame and a bit of fortune while their looks and physical abilities last, but in the 18th Century they were never considered "respectable." Glamour and charisma brought wealthy men routinely into a talented woman's orbit. In a time when rich men routinely took mistresses, (and I'm sure it's not any different today) these talented women were collected by gentlemen as objects that proved status and virility--a virility often lodged only in their bank accounts.

My heroines, born poor and talented, Maria Klara and Nanina Gottlieb, live in a world where they always walk a cliff path way, the kind with a crumbling edge and an abyss beneath. Men take them for harlots simply because of their profession. Maria Klara is, quite literally, the property of a dissolute music-loving aristocrat. Her career as well as her comfort depend upon her powerful Count's good will and her ability to please him--both on stage and in his bed. Escape from her gilded cage seems utterly impossible.

Nanina, her family impoverished by the death of her father, barely escapes being turned out by her own mother. Lost virginity was the end of respectability, and, with that went the only other option for a woman in the 18th Century--marriage. Wife or Prostitute were woman's choices, unless she had money of her own sufficient to survive upon.  Artists like Mozart lived on the edge of this fast and loose theatrical world; Papa Leopold Mozart's letters are full of exhortations and warnings to his precious, susceptible son on the subject of whores, who might also be talented prima donnas, the kind of women who have passed through the hands of many men.

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Saturday, December 28, 2019

New Year’s Resolutions and other Horrible Ideas by Connie Vines

New Year’s Resolutions.  Everyone makes them; everyone breaks them.

Need additional stress in your life?  Then go ahead and make resolutions for 2020.  Proclaim your intent to friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers you might encounter on the street.  Tell everyone so he/she can remind you, about mid-February, that you’ve fallen-off-the-rails—or worst yet, you never made it to the station.

While I’ve had my share of failed resolutions over the years (I’ll share those later in my post), I compiled a list of ‘what were you thinking?’ resolutions.

Quit Your Job.  Calling your boss up on New Year’s Eve and leaving voicemail that you quite your job is one of the worst New Year’s resolutions you can ever act on? Why? Firstly, your savings account is probably looking rather unhealthy. Plus, after the holiday seasonal hires are looking for new jobs, meaning competition for that position you want is going to be tougher than ever.

Join A Gym Straight Away. Joining a gym straight away doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to stick to it. Studies have found that 60 per cent of gym memberships go unused and that by mid-February gym attendance has subsided back to the pre-Christmas levels. Instead, sign-up for a gym class, or walk with a friend (human or furry variety) in the early morning or in the evening.

Travel.  Booking a one-way ticket to some far-flung exotic destination. Great; what about your house, your pets, your job, your partner, your debts? The list goes on and on. Although traveling is great, booking a flight as part of your New Year’s resolution because you hate the monotony of your life.

Join A Band.  Just because the likes of “insert name of your favorite band” started their epic career in a garage, it doesn’t mean you’re going to follow a similar path.  Bad, very bad idea.

Find Someone to Marry (in real life).  Yes, I know I write romance novels with always end with a HEA. However, ‘finding someone to marry’ and ‘falling in love’ are not interchangeable terms.  Even if you’ve had your parents nagging you to settle down all Christmas or you’ve been paraded in front of what feels like a hundred happy couples at numerous festive parties, then your desire to find someone to marry might be higher than normal. Yet, love strikes when you don’t expect it. So, don’t try to plan to find “the one”; give it time and you’ll find someone when you least expect it.

My failed, or repeated fails, of past New Year’s resolutions.

Weight loss, of course.  I’ve joined and rejoined this popular program several times—always with limited results.  The past several years I’ve utilized Pinterest to save ideas and recipes.  I also downloaded “My Fitness Pal” application.  It’s free and I am able to scan, track, and sync with my Fitbit activity tracker.

Go to bed early.  I’m a night-owl (or a closet vampire). Mid-night is my early-bed-time, never mind that I must bound-out-of-bed at 5:45 AM each week day.  My primary doctor asked me ‘how much sleep to you get each night?’  I hedged, “how may hours should I be sleeping?” He responded, firmly, “at least 7 hours.”  “7?” I was shocked (I come from a long-line of night owls) and confessed, “6 hours. . .maybe.”  He stared me down and ordered me to get at least 7 hours.  When I returned home my husband asked me what the doctor said.  I replied, “He told me that I failed sleeping.”  Unfortunately, my husband found this extremely amusing (he’s an early to bed and get-up at 5:00 AM type of person—he even cat-naps). 

Which leads me to. . .going to bed by 10:30 each week night.  Sounds like 7 hours sleep, doesn’t it?  If I fall asleep at 10:30 PM (snort), I’m awake for a couple of hours, usually 2:00 AM – 4:00 AM.  However, on Friday and Saturday I stay up late writing and go to bed in the early AM.  I did purchase a satin sleep mask (think: Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s) for my writing nights.  Of course, my dog (Chanel) tries to pull the mask off and my husband ignores us both. The mask does help.  Sometimes, I even sleep 8 hours.

Are you making resolutions for 2020?  Or do you have a few fails you'd like to share?

Remember my novels are on sale 75% off at Smashwords until January 1, 2020 --saving money and reading a wonderful story written by a BWL author is a great way to start the New Year!

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Best Wishes and Happy Reading,

Connie Vines

"What woman doesn't love a cowboy?"

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Friday, December 27, 2019


 in FICTION Find it and many other books of mine HERE

2019 was a busy and rewarding year in many ways and many areas of my life. On a personal level, my divorce was finalized, after twenty-five years of marriage. The last five years we were separated. Not a tremendous change, but a symbolic one. I always valued freedom above all. 

As for my writing career, a few surprise awards came at the very beginning. I was a bestseller for 2018 at BWL, and ANGEL MINE (Azura Chronicles Book 1) was voted Best Positive Future Novel of 2018 by Critters Annual Readers Poll.


My publication year started with ANGEL FIERCE in February, followed by BLACK DRAGON in June. Then I had to revise and refresh all the books in the CHRONICLES OF KASSOUK (six of them) over the summer for the second publication of this favorite award-winning series by BWL. Then I had to rewrite a short work into a full novel, AKIRA’S CHOICE, Byzantium Book 2, which was released in November. I also contributed to an anthology of essays about genre discrimination and the condition of women, to be released in January to benefit a women’s charity. 

Ten titles in one year. Phew! 

When the stars align, you better be ready for the turmoil. It was grueling work. And a lot of time and effort spent on writing, on promoting the release of each book, not to mention meeting insane deadlines. I had no other choice but to bury myself in my work. 

But the rewards exceeded all my expectations. 

The crowning came on November 2nd, with the 2019 ARIZONA LITERARY AWARDS, where ANGEL FIERCE won first place in fiction, a very large and competitive category.  Here I am in my Phryne Fisher Murder Mysteries costume, cloche hat and all, receiving the award. My book cover is on the big screen. The smile alone tells the story. 

Then, a few weeks later, on November 26, I was selected for the Best of Glendale award in Media and Entertainment, for my achievements as an author, for the year 2019. 
"Each year, this program identifies companies and individuals that we believe have achieved exceptional success in their local community and business category. These exceptional people help make the Glendale area a great place to live, work and play. Various sources of information were gathered and analyzed to choose the winners. The Program focuses on quality, not quantity. Winners are determined based on the information gathered both internally by the Glendale Award Program and data provided by third parties. Only one winner is selected in each category." 

It took me twenty years of arduous work and perseverance from my first book release to get to this point, and I have no regrets. After thirty original titles, it was all worth it. I realized my dream of becoming a recognized and celebrated author, respected by my peers, and loved by my readers. Too bad Amazon doesn’t consider quality as its principal standard. 

But where do I go from here? Keep writing. I’m now working on MALAIKA’S SECRET, Book 3 of the Byzantium series, to be released in 2020. Next will be ANGEL BRAVE, Book 3 of the Azura Chronicles, set on the angel planet. Angel Fierce, the award-winning book, was Book 2 of this series, and Book 1, Angel Mine, won a Readers Poll. Each book is a standalone.

I sincerely hope 2020 gives me a little time to breathe. I wouldn’t want to get burned out about writing, like some of my author friends who stopped producing altogether. I wish to retain my joie de vivre an enjoy some kind of personal life… which was missing in 2019. Besides, having a life can also give authors some inspiration for new characters and new stories. 

Winner Arizona Literary Awards, Fiction, 2019

Something’s rotten on the angel planet. When Avenging Angels turn up dead, Urielle, their Legion Commander, suspects the handsome intruder brought unspeakable evil to Azura.
Maksou never met a woman he couldn’t seduce. He came to the forbidden planet to rescue his friends and get rich in the process, but the jungle crawls with lethal life forms… including a gorgeous warrior angel, who saves his life but keeps him prisoner and challenges his irresistible charm.
Urielle, sworn to protect Azura at all costs, has no use for a maverick who ignores the rules and endangers the planet… no matter how attractive. Especially when the Galactic Trade Alliance (GTA) wages a secret war to get their greedy hands on the priceless crystal at Azura’s core.

"full of fascinating elements and a unique spin on Angels... fast pace and strong, vivid characters that draw readers in and keep them glued to the pages... an entertaining and intriguing read." Ind'tale Magazine

When bounty hunter Akira Karyudo accepted her assignment, something didn't add up. Why would the Galactic Trade Alliance want a young kidnapped orphan dead or alive?

She will get to the truth once she finds the boy, and the no-good SOB who snatched him from a psychiatric hospital. With her cheetah, Freckles, a genetically enhanced feline retriever, Akira sets out to flush them out of the bowels of the Byzantium space station. But when she finds her fugitives, the kidnapper is not what she expects.

Kazmo, a decorated Resistance fighter, stole his nephew from the authorities, who performed painful experiments on the boy. Stuck on Byzantium, he protects the child, but how can he shield him from the horribly dangerous conditions in the lawless sublevels of the space station?

Akira faces the worst moral dilemma of her career. Law or justice, duty or love. She can't have it both ways.

"Wow! If readers want to see and feel and believe they are in deep space, then ‘Akira's Choice’ is the perfect choice! With a touch of romance, the vivid descriptions and beautifully developed characters masterfully presented by Schartz create a virtual world that invite the reader not merely to observe, but to walk amongst them and participate... This is a delicate art, and Schartz wields her weapons with precision and skill. Banzai!" 5 stars - exceptional - recommended read - Ind'tale Magazine

"A captivating story with interesting, appealing characters. Being a cat lover, I found the relationship, with its psychic element, between Freckles and Shane absolutely captivating. As always, Ms. Schartz’s solid plot and crisply-written prose incorporates a good blend of action and intrigue... This story can easily stand alone... but I believe you’ll enjoy this exciting Sci-Fi series much more if you start reading it from the beginning... a must read for all fans of Sci-Fi romance. Go pick them up and settle into your favorite armchair for some entertaining reading. 4.5 stars - Manic Readers

I wish you all a wonderful holiday season, safe travels, and a fantastic year in 2020.

Vijaya Schartz, author
 Strong heroines, brave heroes, cats, romance with a kick
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Thursday, December 26, 2019

The origins of pantomime—Tricia McGill

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The earliest form of pantomime developed in the street markets and fairgrounds of Italy in the 16th century. The Commedia del’arte had its comedy, stock characters and always stories of the old man, Pantalone, the clown Pierrot and Columbine, a girl in love with the servant Arlecchino (Harlequin). In the late 1700s an actor named Joseph Grimaldi took Harlequin to new heights, as the sets became more elaborate. 

By the Victorian era, the pantomime was typical Christmas fare and
saw the demise of the traditional Harlequinade. It became pure variety, plus comedy and music.

I knew none of this when my mother took me along during the festive season to the local church hall or perhaps later on to the nearest music hall, where we would join in the fun. I think my mother probably enjoyed the show as much as me as it was likely she had little time or money earlier when bringing up the other nine children to enjoy the pleasure of a night out. How I loved those shows. It never occurred to me to question why a girl always played Aladdin or Cinderella’s ugly sisters were always a couple of middle aged male comedians. Audience participation was and still is a vital part of the pantomime.
One of my favourites was Dick Whittington, perhaps because I liked his cat who accompanied him on his search for the city paved with gold. I can still see him on that stage, sitting on the milestone outside London with his cat alongside him. Of course, I had no idea back then that this panto story is based on the life of a real Richard Whittington who went on to become a four times Lord Mayor of London. He was famous for financing projects such as drainage systems in the poorer areas of Medieval London. Folklore has it that he made a fortune by selling his cat to an Eastern gent who sent the cat back to his rat-infested empire, but that is one of those believe it or not stories probably with little truth in it.

Perhaps my love of panto stemmed from my love of reading. To see the characters I knew well come to life on the stage was magical.

It is believed that the British panto and the role reversal of principal boy and the Dame may have evolved from the Feast of Fools; a Tudor tradition presided over by the Lord of Misrule. Apparently, this feast was just an excuse for drinking to excess and the consequential revelry. Or, this festival may have originated from the Roman times where the master would allow his servants to take over his role as master throughout the festival.

Whatever or wherever it originated, pantomime is still alive and doing well. I guarantee that the settings and characters have improved a thousand-fold since those far off days, where my mother probably paid about sixpence or a shilling entrance fee, and we sat on hard benches in the draughty church hall and shouted along with the crowd, “Look behind you,” to a character on the stage who appeared oblivious to all that was going on at his rear.

I do hope that most of you have experienced a panto and have taken your children or grandchildren along to see at least one.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Chuckles by A.M.Westerling

If you’re reading this post on the 25th it means you’ve found a few minutes to yourself to put your feet up and take a small break from the busyness of the day. I’ll be taking it easy and recovering today as we have our Christmas meal and gift opening on Christmas Eve. I’m hosting the family this year so we’ll have twelve around the table. On the menu? Turkey with stuffing, pork loin roast, red cabbage, carrots with chives, festive mushrooms, potatoes and gravy, followed by rice pudding and cherry sauce. The rice pudding is a Danish tradition – if you find the whole almond in your pudding, you win the prized marzipan pig! One year both my daughters in law won. That's my brother, disappointed he was oh so close...

I thought I might share a few of my favourite Christmas chuckles and if you follow my FB fan page, you know I’m a sucker for a good pun. On that note, I’ll sign off. I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and all the best in 2020!

Just a comment on the first one – you might have to be a certain age to appreciate it. As a young girl, I remember my father sitting with the string of lights in his lap, unscrewing each bulb and checking them out on his volt meter.

And I absolutely love this one (not sure what it says about my sense of humour...!):

Monday, December 23, 2019

Porter Collier's Christmas Angel by Victoria Chatham

Here is a story for Christmas, rather than my usual blog. Curl up in a cozy place with a cup of coffee or glass of wine, and enjoy!

“Of course you’re coming home for dinner, Porter. It’s Christmas Day today.”
Porter Collier moved the phone away from his ear and sighed.
“I heard that,” his mother said.
Porter removed his horn-rimmed spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off the inevitable headache resulting from a conversation with his mother.
“Mom, Christmas is just another day. An expensive one for many people, which is why I prefer to stay here and work to make sure that my business, my staff and I, and subsequently you and Aunt Min, can look forward to a prosperous New Year.”
“Don’t be so snippy,” his mother sniffed, “and it’s unfair to bring your aunt into this.”
Porter replaced his spectacles, knowing that he could not escape the mandatory dinner. “I have to go. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
He replaced the receiver in its cradle and stared gloomily out of his third-floor office window. Christmas was his least favourite time of year. He wished he could avoid it all. His mother, with every reason to not like the season, insisted on celebrating it.
Suddenly restless, he got to his feet, grabbed his jacket and headed for the main office. He knew he wasn’t the only one of his staff with issues on the whole Holly, Jolly, Jingle-jingle holiday. Even today, there might be someone with whom he could chat over a coffee.
He paused at the entrance to the hub of his company, the workspace usually inhabited by more than thirty computer wizards employed by IT Inc. Today the desks and cubicles were empty with not a soul in sight. About to leave, a sudden movement caught his eye. He peered through the glass pane, and his forehead creased into a frown as a blonde head emerged from beneath a desk, followed by a petite, decidedly feminine form.
Who was that?
Porter pushed the door open a little and heard her muttering. He pushed the door all the way open and walked in.
“Can I help?” he asked.
The girl looked up, regarding him with a pair of cornflower blue eyes. Porter’s breath caught in his throat. He prided himself on knowing all his staff but had never seen this girl before.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I just dropped my phone.”
“Is it okay?”
“I think so. At least the screen isn’t cracked.”
“Well, if you have any problems with it, let the office manager know after the holiday. There’s usually a couple of spare phones around if you need one.”
“Great, thanks for the tip.” She grinned at him. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at home with your family?”
“Shouldn’t you?” he said, his voice rasping a little.
She laughed at that, a laugh that made him want to laugh, too. “Touché. Have you worked here for long?”
Porter cleared his throat. Was she unaware of his identity? If so, maybe that was a good thing.  “A few years now.”
“You must like it then.”
“Yes, I suppose I do,” he said, nodding his head. “How about you?”
“I’ve only been here a couple of months and love the flexibility of it. It’s awesome being able to come and work at midnight if I can’t sleep or on a weekend if I have a sudden breakthrough in fixing a problem.”
“Are you fixing problems today?” He would find things to do if that were the case and stay with her.
There was that grin again, the grin that transformed her and made him think of a cheeky, adorable pixie. “No, I’m only killing time until I go and take my girls out.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but you seem very young to have children.”
The grin turned into a laugh. “There’s nothing to forgive, and it’s not kids, it’s dogs. Mollie and Sheba. Would you like to come with us?”
Porter was inexplicably drawn to this girl and didn’t want to part company with her. He’d never had a pet of any kind but would walk a dinosaur to stay with her. “Do you think they’d mind?”
“I can’t imagine they would, but I’ll warn you they’re a bit different.” She busied herself with stashing things in her purse, then took her coat from the back of her chair and shrugged it on.
“Different how?” Porter asked as he caught her collar and helped settle the coat into place on her shoulders. He couldn’t help noticing the garment was somewhat threadbare.
“They’re both old,” she said, “and some would say they’re not attractive dogs. It’s unlikely they’ll be adopted even though the shelter does its best. I like to visit them and take them for walks.”
“On Christmas Day,” Porter mused.
“On any day. Come on, there’s only one car in the lot, and it’s mine.”
Her small stature belied the speed of her walk, and Porter hurried to keep up with her. The car was a beat-up old Chevrolet Malibu. As she unlocked it, a thought struck him.
“Before I drive off with a stranger, shouldn’t I at least know your name?”
Again that laugh that made him want to laugh with her. “You’ll be quite safe with me, I promise. I’m Juliet Pym. And you?”
Porter thought fast. If he told her his real name, she might be embarrassed and drive off alone. He couldn’t let that happen. “It’s Brad, Brad Carpenter.”
He offered his hand across the hood of her car, and she took it. Her fingers, soft and warm, curled around his. She might as well have thrown chains around his heart.
“Then hop in, Mr. Carpenter, and I’ll take you away on my magic carpet.”
She put the key in the ignition, and the engine fired on the first turn. The bodywork might be a bit iffy, but there was nothing wrong with the motor. She headed out of the southern California town of Chula Vista, taking streets Porter didn’t recognize in a part of town he didn’t know existed. He opened the window, smelled salt in the air and knew they were heading towards the beach. The buildings they passed were older, run-down strip malls and single storey homes. Then she turned in to a dusty parking lot in front of a long, low building with a sign above the door advertising the Costa Animal Shelter.
Beyond the crumbling adobe brick wall, a cacophony of barking assaulted Porter’s ears.
“How many dogs do they have here?”
“At the moment about sixty, give or take. Monica updates the website every day, so chances are one or two might have been adopted out or fostered. Come on.”
She breezed through the double doors into a tiled lobby with a long reception desk at the back of it. Behind the counter, an open door revealed a yard shaded by olive trees.
Juliet rang the bell on the counter. “Yo, Monica,” she called. “I’ve come for my girls, and I’ve brought a friend.”
Instantly a sturdy figure darkened the doorway. As the woman came into the office, Porter took in her muscular brown arms and tanned face. A red bandana corralled her mop of long, curly toffee-coloured hair. As she set eyes on Porter, she smiled, revealing a set of healthy white teeth.
“This is Brad,” Juliet said. “He’s going to walk with us today.”
“No problem. Don’t forget to sign out. You know where the leashes are. Nice to meet you, Brad. You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got half a dozen puppies on the go out here.”
She waved and ducked back out the door.
“Hello, to you too, Monica,” Porter said to her retreating back.
Juliet laughed. “There’s usually at least four on staff. As it’s Christmas, Monica lets the others go home after the morning feeding and cleaning routine.”
“I take it she’s the owner?”
Juliet took two leashes from a rack on the wall and walked along a corridor with kennels on each side. “Yes, and lives onsite here. She bought the property when she left the military. She’s one tough cookie, let me tell you. Here we are.”
Porter heard the dog before he saw it. A snuffling and snorting came from behind the security screen covering the lower half of the chain-link gate, then whining and scratching.
“It’s okay, Mollie,” Juliet said. “I can’t wait to see you either. Just give me a minute here.”
She set the screen against the wall and opened the gate. A brindle and white body came barreling out right into Juliet’s open arms. Porter stepped back. He hadn’t known what to expect, certainly not this awkward, misaligned creature with a broad, scarred head, gaping jaws, and misshapen front legs.
“Good Lord, what is it? And why hasn’t it got any ears?”
“I told you that she was different,” Juliet said. “This is Mollie, who is mostly pit bull. She was a stray and we think she was turned out of a fighting ring. That’s the most likely reason for her ears to have been cropped. Her front legs have both been broken and healed on their own, which is why she is so bandy. But look at her, she’s all smiles and happiness despite everything that may have happened to her.”
Juliet bent down and cuddled the dog, getting a slurpy tongue all over her face in return. She clipped a leash onto Mollie’s collar and handed it to Porter. Mollie looked up at him expectantly, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth. He slowly sank into a crouch, touched when the dog put its paw on his arm. He reached out and rubbed behind Mollie’s battered ear.
“Who could have done such a thing to you, hmm?” he queried softly.
In answer, Mollie reached up and swiped her tongue across his face.
“It looks like you have made a friend,” Juliet said.
Porter looked up. She came towards him, holding the leash of a rough-haired, sad-looking dog. While Mollie bounced up and down, her tail wagging, this dog stood beside Juliet, quietly waiting for what might come next.
“What’s her story?” Porter asked.
“Sheba was orphaned,” Juliet told him.
“Orphaned?” Porter raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, her person passed away. She’s still mourning. No one has seen her wag her tail since she came to us, and she’s been here six months already.”
“What about Mollie? How long has she been in the shelter?”
“Eighteen months.” Juliet sighed. “I wish people could see how beautiful these dogs are, inside and out. Anyway, shall we go? It’s only a couple of blocks to the beach.”
On their way through the office, Juliet stopped and filled in the book on the counter, leaving the date, her name, the dogs’ names, and the time she checked them out.
“Security,” she said in answer to Porter’s unspoken question.
They headed towards the beach, Mollie knowing where she was going and charging ahead as much as she was able. Sheba shuffled along between them. Porter looked at the dog’s low-slung head and the slouch of her shoulders.
“She looks like a German Shepherd,” he said.
“Mm, Shepherd Labrador mix, Monica thinks,” Juliet agreed. “Here we are. You can let Mollie off the leash. She’s got an excellent recall response and never goes far, so we don’t need to worry about any of the other beach walkers.”
“What about Sheba?”
“I think she wants to make sure nothing happens to us so she won’t go too far, either.”
Juliet unclipped Sheba’s leash and the dog wandered a few feet ahead of them, frequently looking over her shoulder to see where they were.
“I see what you mean,” Porter said after watching her for a few moments. “That’s plain sad. You said they were old, so how old are they?”
“Best we can tell, Mollie is ten, maybe eleven and Sheba a little older. The neighbours said she was fully grown when she and her owner moved in and they lived in that house for ten years, so that might make her twelve or thirteen.”
“And people don’t want older dogs?”
Juliet shook her head. “There’s always the risk of medical problems and then the expense of medications and end of life arrangements. Most people want at least a few years of fun with a dog before they have to deal with that, and some never do. They give their dogs up anyway or dump them.”
Porter shook his head. “I can’t even begin to understand how people can do that.”
Juliet shrugged. “Me neither, but it happens. Some of the reasons make me sad, some make me mad, but I’ve learned to ignore that and concentrate on the dogs to make them as happy as I can.”
“Mollie’s certainly happy,” Porter said, nodding to where Mollie wrestled with a long strand of kelp that had washed ashore.
Juliet laughed and then whistled. Mollie hustled towards them, dragging her prize with her. They walked in silence for a while, their feet leaving prints in the wet sand and the breeze coming off the ocean misting them with salt-laden spray.
“So tell me,” Juliet began, “why were you in the office today?”
“I don’t like Christmas,” Porter said bluntly. “I treat it like any other day.”
“May I ask why?”
Porter stopped walking and stared towards the horizon where the blanket-blue bowl of the sky masked the birth of white-tipped rollers.
“Eight years ago today,” he said, watching the surf tumble onto the shore like a visitor on the doorstep, “my father didn’t wake up. Every Christmas since, Mom tries to make it a regular, everyday celebration, just like she always did when he was alive. But it’s not.”
“I’m so sorry.” Juliet slipped her hand into his. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
Porter looked down at their entwined fingers. “I should be used to it by now, but I’m not.”
“No.” Juliet shook her head. “Grieving takes as much time as it needs. I lost both my parents when I was eight, and my grandma brought me up, but she’s gone now. I haven’t got anyone to love, so I love the critters at the shelter instead.”
“And you’re happy?” Porter stopped walking and looked down at her.
“Yes,” Juliet said without hesitation. “But then, happiness is a choice, don’t you think?”
“I can’t say I’ve ever considered it.” He looked into Juliet’s eyes and saw a glow there, a glow enhanced by her wind-blown pink cheeks. She looked fresh and innocent and made him feel old and careworn. “Were you born wise, or did that come with the territory?”
Her shoulders rose and fell in a movement that seemed as natural to her as blinking. “A bit of both, I think. I certainly had my fair share of counsellors.”
“And now you have the dogs.”
She nodded in agreement and stopped to watch them. 
“That’s my mom before dad died,” Porter said, nodding towards Mollie, who, with the kelp clamped between her jaws, ran in exuberant circles. “and that’s what she’s like now.” He pointed towards Sheba, who stood with her face into the wind, her nose twitching as if searching for a familiar scent.
A tremor ran through Juliet’s hand. Porter turned to her. “Are you cold?”
“A little bit,” she admitted. Porter slipped his jacket off and slung it around her shoulders, surreptitiously checking his watch as he did so.
Juliet did not miss the motion. “Have you got to be somewhere?”
“No,” he began, but then hesitated. “Uh, make that a yes. But just a minute.”
He pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket, hit a number on his speed dial and waited for the call to connect.
“Hi, Mom,” he said. “Would you mind if I bring guests for dinner? One two-legged, and two four-legged?” He paused and listened. Juliet waved a hand in front of his face, mouthing “you can’t do that,” but Porter took no notice, only catching her hand and kissing her fingers. “Okay, we’ll be there in half an hour.”
“Brad, I cannot intrude on your family Christmas,” Juliet insisted.
“Tell me you have somewhere better to be,” Porter said and grinned at her. “By the way, will Monica let you bring the dogs?”
“Probably,” Juliet said. She whistled for Mollie, who lolloped towards her like a drunken sailor, and clipped the leashes onto the dogs’ collars for the short walk back to the Shelter.
Monica agreed to them taking the dogs but insisted they be back by nine o’clock for the final night check.
“We’ll probably be earlier than that,” Juliet said as she turned towards the door and joined Porter. “You’ll have to give me directions.”
They bundled the dogs into the back seat and Porter slid into the passenger seat. “Go back to the office, and I’ll direct you from there.”
Juliet did as he asked and then followed his directions from the old warehouse that housed IT Inc’s premises. From time to time she glanced curiously at him as they headed towards a more upmarket side of town. She began to frown as they turned into a two-lane, palm-lined avenue leading to closed gates with a security station in their centre.
“You live here?” she breathed, ducking her head to peer at the estate-style houses beyond the gate.
“No, my mother does. Can you open your window, please?”
She did as he asked. He leaned across her and waved at the security guard. “Hi, Frank. We’re just on the way to see Mom.”
“Do you want me to call her for you, Mr. Collier?”
“No, thanks,” Porter responded, “She knows we’re coming.”
Juliet sat still, staring straight ahead of her.
“Um, you can drive on now,” Porter said. “The gate’s open.”
“Yes, I see that,” Juliet snapped and put her foot down. The Malibu shot forward, slamming Porter back in his seat and shifting the dogs. Mollie huffed, and Sheba’s wet nose connected with his neck.
Porter could barely contain a chuckle at the furious expression on Juliet’s tight little face. “Mom’s house is the next drive on the right.”
Juliet swung into it with a maneuver that might have impressed a movie stunt-driver but brought a shout of laughter from Porter. She jerked to a stop and turned to face him, her eyes flashing daggers. She took a deep breath as if struggling to form words, and then, “ohmygodyouaremyboss,” rolled out of her perfect little mouth on a single exhale.
“I’m sorry,” Porter said, “but if I had told you who I was back in the office, would you have invited me to go for a walk with you and the dogs?”
“No, of course not,” she stammered.
“And so we would not have had a perfect day, at least it’s been perfect for me. How about you?”
Juliet dropped her head but put her hand over his. “The best in a long time,” she whispered.
“Come on then,” Porter said, squeezing her hand. “Mom and Aunt Min are waiting for us.”
He opened the back door of the car and Mollie and Sheba jumped out. Sheba looked around, her nose twitching. Then she headed up the front steps with Mollie and Porter in her wake. As they approached the front door, it swung open, and Porter’s mother stepped onto the porch with a welcoming smile on her face. Sheba stopped, her ears pricked.
“Well, hello, sweet girl,” Mrs. Collier said. “And how are you?”
Sheba pushed her nose into Mrs. Collier’s outstretched hand and wagged her tail, leaving Juliet speechless.  
“That’s the first time Mom has smiled in ages,” Porter told her quietly, then leaned in and kissed his mother on the cheek. “Thanks for having us all, Mom.”
Mollie charged through the open doorway. They heard her claws skittering on the tiled hall floor and a strident voice yelling, “what the hell is that thing?”
“That’s Mollie, Aunt Min,” Porter called. “Don’t worry. She grows on you.”
Porter held out his hand to Juliet.
“Come on,” he said. “Mom and Aunt Min are anxious to meet you, so now it’s time to introduce them to my Christmas Angel.”

The End

Victoria Chatham

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