Authors: Lisa Plumley
Inadvertently, Casey stepped out of the frying pan into the fire. He got out of his car, realized he might seriously freeze to death in the snow, and hauled ass into the Galaxy Diner.
Once inside, he immediately realized his mistake. He wasn’t going to avoid Christmas here. It looked as if Santa and his elves had gone on a bender. It looked as if Martha Stewart and Bozo the Clown had teamed up to help them. It looked . . . insane. In an upbeat, idiosyncratic, pass-the-fruitcake kind of way.
From the cartoon Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer hand-painted on the diner’s window to the twinkling lights hung inside to the evergreen garland wrapped around the counters and chairs, the place hadn’t missed a single opportunity to get into the holiday spirit. Not that its myriad customers seemed to mind. Bathed in the multicolored glow from the chaser lights overhead, they packed the place to the rafters, chattering in groups while they waited for one of the tables to become available or sitting at one of those tables already.
Inside, it was quirky and warm and in-your-face cheerful, and the moment the strains of a reggae version of “Holly, Jolly Christmas” reached him, Casey seriously considered leaving.
Despite his need to get on with the job he’d come here to do, he did not want to be engulfed in Christmas. But the general hubbub felt weirdly uplifting. And he suddenly caught a savory, delicious (and nongingerbready) smell wafting from the grill. And he realized he was starving at the same time as he realized there were at least two teenagers here who might be Heather’s little sister. So he could start babysitting. In Christmas Town.
He had to be crazy.
. But as a starting point, it would have to do.
Casually, Casey made eye contact with the next person waiting for a table. He kicked off a conversation. Three minutes later, the local man he’d been talking to nodded and said, “Kristen? Yeah, sure. I’ve seen her. She’s right over there.”
Casey followed the man’s pointing finger. At the end of its imaginary arc, a blond waitress worked the diner’s counter.
Casey frowned. “There has to be some mistake.”
“Nope. That’s Kristen Miller, all right. Only one in town.”
It couldn’t be. Casey looked again—at the
tomboyish, one-hundred-percent-grown-up woman he’d been led to believe was terrorizing Heather Miller’s TV special.
Something about this situation didn’t quite gel.
For one thing, Kristen Miller appeared much too busy to waste time getting in the way of her sister’s cheesecake-y, Auto-Tuned, wildly expensive music video-turned-TV special.
For another, Kristen Miller didn’t seem the type to be starstruck, disruptive, or prone to petty unruliness . . . although she
pretty distracting, at least from where Casey was standing. He could see why a person would have a tough time concentrating while she was around.
But Heather was her
. She wouldn’t have been affected by . . . the same things Casey was affected by.
Trying to figure out the disconnect between Heather’s description of her “starstruck” little sister and the sensible-seeming, hard-at-work woman he saw at the diner’s counter, he considered Kristen Miller more closely.
She was cute. Really cute. She was dressed in a makeshift uniform of a plaid flannel shirt, denim miniskirt, dark tights, and knee-high boots. She’d tied a multipocketed shop apron around her waist to hold her order pad and pen. She was chatting with a customer, looking friendly and knowledgeable and surprisingly down-to-earth for someone who was related to a megalomaniac millionaire megastar with multiple
Overall, Casey thought, she appeared . . . pretty ordinary. And nonthreatening. It couldn’t be easy living in Heather Miller’s sequin-spangled, paparazzi-filled, much-Twittered-about sisterly shadow. But Kristen Miller seemed to have no problem with it.
Musingly, Casey said, “She looks pretty harmless to me.”
“‘Harmless,’ huh?” The man beside him gave a knowing chuckle. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
For the first time, Casey felt a glimmer of uncertainty.
had never happened to him before. In his line of work, certainty was paramount—followed closely by charisma and trailed by an ability to talk anyone into anything while still staying honest. Because if the people he worked with didn’t trust him, he was sunk, Casey knew. So far, he’d never had a problem.
“No, I’m not from around here,” he said. “But—”
“Kristen doesn’t take any guff from anybody.” The man gave her an admiring head shake. “She practically built this place with her bare hands. It was a boarded-up old fifties gas station when she got a hold of it. She turned it around but quick—and woe betide any contractor who tried to drag his feet on the job, too.”
“That sounds like the voice of experience talking.”
“Yep.” His new friend grinned. “I’m a neon contractor. Last one in town. My company restored the old Googie work on the elevated pylon outside.” He aimed his chin at the snow-topped G
sign just visible through the window. “I added custom-fabricated LED Channellume to the exterior and did some tube-bending for the neon detail work you see inside, too.”
Casey nodded. “Nice job. It’s a great-looking place.”
It was. He hadn’t noticed all the finer points at first—thanks to the overload of sparkly holiday crap threatening to obliterate them—but the Galaxy Diner had character. And style. Its history was evident in the 1950s “bones” of the place, but unlike those ubiquitous “retro-style” restaurants filled with mass-produced “memorabilia,” it felt real and modern and fresh.
A metal roll-up service-bay door—an obvious holdover from the property’s past—formed one exterior wall. Antique auto lifts made up the bases of three of the tables. Several dinged-up, hand-painted metal
signs hung on the walls beneath the holiday garland and lights. The floor was concrete, the big picture window was edged with steel, and everywhere he looked, it was as if the Galaxy Diner had launched a full-scale Christmas assault on the populace of Kismet, Michigan. Grinchy types like Casey didn’t stand a chance against it.
For the second time, he felt a flicker of uncertainty.
Sure, he could deal with a no-nonsense woman who knew how to manage a menagerie of burly contractors. That was easy. But
particular woman also seemed obsessed with Christmas. And
he couldn’t quite figure out how to cope with. A Christmas-crazed woman was pretty much the antithesis of Casey Jackson.
Which was probably just as well, it occurred to him. He couldn’t afford to be distracted. Right now, he needed to focus.
“It’s definitely a change of pace from what I’m used to,” he said, deliberately swerving his attention to Kristen Miller again. She was talking with a customer, oblivious to onlookers, so he was free to study her. She looked . . . very different from Heather. “It was seventy degrees and sunny when I left L.A.”
“L.A.? Is that so?” His newfound confidant looked him up and down. “Well, you’re a long way from Hollywood now!” he said with a jovial poke to the ribs. People tended to bond with Casey quickly. Occasional handsiness came with the territory. “At least you’re all bundled up. Sometimes tourists come to town wearing the flimsiest, most god-awful winter duds.”
“I like to come prepared.” But something told him he
prepared for Kristen Miller. Which was ridiculous. She was just one ordinary woman. Casey noticed movement across the diner and added, “I see a spot at the counter opening up. You want it?”
“Oh, no, thanks. I’m here with my family. We need a table.”
The man gestured at a slightly older woman nearby, who was entertaining two toddlers by playing peekaboo. Seeing them laughing together, Casey felt another pang of uncertainty.
Christmastime meant family. He’d purposely avoided—
“So,” the man asked, “how come you’re looking for Kristen?”
Dragged from a thought he did not want to be having, Casey forced a smile. “I need some information,” he said. “And right now, Kristen is the best person to give it to me.”
Then he gave one of the toddlers an exaggerated peekaboo face (provoking a hearty kid-style chuckle in response), offered the mom an offhanded wink (provoking a blush and a giddy wave in response), and headed for the solitary available stool at the end of the diner’s vintage Formica counter, ready to work his magic.
Galaxy Diner, Kismet, Michigan
Christmas Takeover: Day 8¼
When she’d first come out from the back of the diner, Kristen had wondered, belatedly, how she was supposed to spot Casey Jackson. Heather hadn’t offered a physical description of him. Even though it was December—hardly the height of the tourist season in snowy, lakeside Kismet—there were enough unfamiliar people visiting family and friends for the holidays that Kristen couldn’t simply buttonhole the lone stranger in the crowd and commence “distracting” him.
On the verge of calling back Heather for a more thorough dossier on the habits, habitat, and identifying marks of professional Harbingers of Hollywood Doom once she finished with her current customer, Kristen heard a child laugh. The sound carried over the murmur of customers talking, over the racket of the kitchen staff working, over the sound of the Vandals’ “Oi to the World!” blasting over the diner’s sound system.
Glancing in the direction of that gleeful laughter, Kristen spotted a toddler grinning. The inciter of the child’s laughter—a tall, broad-shouldered man making an incongruously playful peekaboo gesture—laughed, too. Then he gave the toddler’s mother a wink. Spotting that, Kristen straightened in anticipation.
She knew that toddler’s mother—a no-nonsense type given to terrorizing her neighbors about untrimmed hedges and berating the newspaper deliverer for leaving her copy of the
two feet too far from her front porch. There was no way she’d put up with a stranger peekaboo-ing her toddler—much less
at her in a flirtatious fashion. Right next to her husband, too!
Interestedly, Kristen watched the woman’s encounter with the tall, dark stranger. Any second now, she’d smack him with the latest issue of
magazine. She’d call him out on his “inappropriate” behavior. She’d . . . blush and wave back at him?
Flabbergasted, Kristen blinked. But the tableau didn’t change. If anything, it only became more surreal. Because not long after the stranger returned the woman’s coy wave, he nodded good-naturedly at her husband . . . and the man beamed at him in response, as though he’d been blessed by Diner-Going Jesus.
All that was missing was a heavenly chorus. Or a fanfare of trumpets. Or maybe a throng of eager groupies. But even
were represented, Kristen realized, if you counted the cadre of grandmotherly types nearby. All of them appeared ready to cook the newcomer some soup, give him some slipcovers for his sofa, or knit him a scarf, right there on the spot.
Apparently unaware of his fan club, the stranger turned toward the single available seat at the counter. But everyone else started talking at once, clearly unwilling to see the party in the entryway come to an end. And it
a party, Kristen saw. The big urn of coffee and little squares of gingerbread she offered to waiting customers might as well have been cocktails and hors d’oeuvre, so festive was the atmosphere in that cramped space. As the man stepped away, everyone surged nearer to him.
“You try to stay warm now, you hear?” one woman advised him kindly. “This isn’t Los Angeles. It’s cold outside!”
“If you need any directions or work done on your rental car, just stop by my shop,” a local mechanic added eagerly.
“Remember, it’s The Big Foot bar,” said a second man, who owned a popular hangout a few streets away. “Stop by anytime!”
The stranger promised he would duly bundle up, ask for help if lost or experiencing engine trouble, and grab a beer or two. But the hubbub continued with men and women alike jockeying to offer invitations, all of which were accepted. Kristen had never seen anything like it. That was how she knew, based partly on her sister’s overblown hyperbole (and partly on the fact that she overheard someone say his name) that
was Casey Jackson.
was the man who’d come to Kismet on a search-and-destroy mission aimed squarely at
At least he was, if Heather could be believed. That was still debatable. Generally speaking, the more words that came out of Heather’s mouth, the less reliable those words were.
Heather had gotten his legendary reputation all wrong, though, Kristen realized. Because
particular broad-shouldered, easy-gesturing, über-popular newcomer didn’t seem like any “hatchet man” Kristen had ever met. He seemed more like . . . the pied piper of Kismet. Somehow, in the space of two Christmas carols (while she’d been busy delivering a daily special to a nearby table), he’d enchanted all her customers. Now each of them was clamoring to win his approval.
Evidently, they all loved Casey Jackson. At first sight.
Just the way everyone loved Kristen’s sister. Unreservedly.
It was as if Heather and Casey Jackson were two peas in a pod. Both were unfairly blessed, unreasonably exempt from normal standards of behavior, and unconditionally adored. No matter how disruptive their behavior might be for everyone around them.
Paradoxically, the realization made Kristen dig in her heels. Frowning at Casey Jackson, she resolved to find out what he wanted and then—if possible—to get him out of town. Like,
. Why stop at distracting him when she could get rid of him? If she was going to have her hero moment, she might as well do it up right. Go big or go home. Wasn’t that what they said?