From childhood, Mercy Dane viewed Christmas Eve in Savannah, Georgia, like something out of a fairy tale. The old, elegant mansions were always lit from within and decorated with great swags of greenery hanging above the doorways and porch railings like thick green icing on snowy white cakes.
The shops decked out in similar holiday style were as charming as the sweet Southern women who worked within. Each shop boasted fragrant evergreens, plush red velvet bows, and flickering lights mimicking the stars in the night sky above the city.
And even though Mercy had grown up on the hard side of town with lights far less grand, the lights in her world burned with true Southern perseverance. Now that she was no longer a child, the beauty of the holiday was something other people celebrated, and on this cold Christmas Eve, she no longer believed in fairy tales. So far, the chapters of her life consisted of a series of foster families until she aged out of the system and one magic Christmas Eve with a man she never saw again. The only lights in her world now were the lights where she worked at the Road Warrior Bar.
The yellow neon sign over the bar was partially broken. The R in Road was missing its leg, making the word look like Toad. But the patrons who frequented this bar didn’t care about the name. They came for the company and a drink or two to dull the disappointment of a lifetime of regrets.
Carson Beal, who went by the name of Moose, owned the bar. He’d been meaning to get the R fixed for years, but intention was worth nothing without the action, and Moose had yet to act upon the thought.
Outside, the blinking neon light beckoned, calling the lonely and the thirsty into the bar where the beer was cold and the gumbo and rice Moose served was hot with spice and fire.
Moose often took advantage of Mercy’s talent for baking after she’d once brought cupcakes for Moose and the employees to snack on. After that, she’d bring in some of whatever she’d made at home. On occasion, Moose would ask her to bake him something special. It was always good to have a little extra money, so she willingly obliged.
This Christmas Eve, Moose had ordered an assortment of Christmas cookies for the bar. When Mercy came in to work carrying the box of baked goods, he was delighted. Now a large platter of cookies graced the north end of the bar.
The incongruity of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” playing in the background was only slightly less bizarre than the old tinsel Christmas tree hanging above the pool table like a molting chandelier.
Because of the holiday, only two of his four waitresses were on duty—Barb Hanson, a thirtysomething widow with purple hair, and Mercy Dane, the baker with a curvy body.
Mercy’s long, black hair was a stunning contrast to the red Christmas sweater she was wearing, and her willowy body and long, shapely legs looked even longer in her black jeans and boots. Her olive skin and dark hair gave her an exotic look, but being abandoned as a baby and growing up in foster care, she had no knowledge of her heritage.
Barb of the purple hair wore red and green, a rather startling assortment of colors for a lady her age, and both women were wearing reindeer antler headbands with little bells. Between the bells and antlers, the music and cookies, and the Christmas tree hanging above the pool table, Moose had set a holiday mood.
Mercy had been working at the bar for over five years. Although she’d turned twenty-six just last week, her life, like this job, was going nowhere.
It was nearing midnight when a quick blast of cold air suddenly moved through the bar and made Mercy shiver. She didn’t have to look to know the ugly part of this job had just arrived.
“Damn, Moose, play some real music, why don’t ya?” Big Boy yelled as the door slammed shut behind him.
Moose glared at the big biker who’d entered his bar. “This is real music, Big Boy. Sit down somewhere and keep your opinions to yourself.”
The biker flipped Moose off, spat on the floor, and stomped through the room toward an empty table near the back, making sure to feel up Mercy’s backside in passing.
When Big Boy suddenly shoved his hand between her legs, she nearly dropped the tray of drinks she was carrying. She knew from experience that he was waiting for a reaction, so she chose to bear the insult without calling attention to it.
As soon as he was seated, Big Boy slapped the table and yelled at the barmaids, “One of you bitches bring me a beer!”
Moose glanced nervously at Mercy, aware that she’d become the target for most of Big Boy’s harassment.
Barb sailed past Mercy with a jingle in every step. “I’ve got his table,” she said.
“Thanks,” Mercy said and delivered the drinks she was carrying. “Here you go, guys! Christmas Eve cheer and cookies from Moose!”
One trucker, a man named Pete, took a big bite out of the iced sugar cookie. “Mmm, this is good,” he said.
“Mercy made them,” Moose yelled.
Pete shook his head and took another bite. “You have a fine hand with baking. I’d ask you to marry me, darlin’, but my old lady would object.”
Mercy took the teasing with a grin. The men at this table were good men who always left nice tips. In fact, most of the patrons in the bar were men with no family or truckers who couldn’t get home for Christmas. Every now and then, a random woman would wander in to have a drink but rarely lingered, except for Lorena Haysworth, the older woman sitting at the south end of the bar.
She’d been coming here since before Mercy was born, and in her younger days, she and Moose had been lovers before slowly drifting apart. She’d come back into his life a few months ago and nightly claimed the seat at the end of the bar.
Barb took the first of what would be multiple beers to Big Boy’s table, along with a Christmas cookie and a bowl of stale pretzels, making sure to keep the table between them.
Big Boy lunged at her as if he was going to grab her, and when she turned around and ran, he leaned back and laughed.
Mercy returned to the bar with a new order and waited for Moose to fill it.
“Sorry about that,” Moose said as he glanced toward the table where Big Boy was sitting.
Her eyes narrowed angrily. “How sorry are you? Sorry enough to kick him out? Or just sorry his money is more important to you than me and Barb?”
Moose’s face turned as red as his shirt. “Damn it, Mercy. You know how it goes,” he said and pushed the new order across the bar.
She did know. The customer was always right. Trying not to buy into the turmoil, she picked up the tray and delivered the order with a smile.
The night wore on with Big Boy getting drunker and more belligerent, while Barb and Mercy dodged his constant attempts to maul them, until finally, it was time to close.
It was a few minutes before 2:00 a.m. when Moose shut down the bar. There were only three customers left: Big Boy, who was so close to passed out he couldn’t walk; Lorena, who was waiting to go home with Moose; and a trucker who’d fallen asleep at his table.
Mercy headed for the trucker, leaving Moose to wrestle Big Boy up and out.
The trucker was a small, wiry man named Frank Bigalow who fancied himself a ringer for country music star Willie Nelson. He was dreaming of hit songs and gold records when Mercy woke him.
“Frank. Frank. You need to wake up now. We’re closing.”
Bigalow straightened abruptly, momentarily confused as to where he was, then saw Mercy and smiled.
“Oh. Right. Sure thing, honey. What do I owe you?” he mumbled.
“Twelve dollars,” she said.
Bigalow stood up to get his wallet out of his pants, then pulled out a twenty. “Keep the change and Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said and began bussing his table as he walked out of the bar.
Moose had Big Boy on his way out the door, and it was none too soon for Mercy.
She handed Moose the twenty when he returned. “Take twelve out. The rest is mine,” she said and pocketed the change Moose gave her.
Within fifteen minutes, the bar was clear and swept, the money was in the safe, and Barb and Mercy were heading for the door.
“Hey! Girls! Wait up!” Moose said, then handed them each an envelope, along with little bags with some of Mercy’s cookies. “Merry Christmas. We’re not open tomorrow, so sleep in.”
“Thank you,” Barb said as she slid the envelope inside her purse.
“Much appreciated,” Mercy added as she put her envelope in one of the inner pockets of her black leather bomber jacket. It was old and worn, but it was warm.
Then she grabbed her helmet and the cookies and headed out the door behind Barb and just ahead of Moose and Lorena. Once outside, she paused to judge the near-empty parking lot, making sure Big Boy and his Harley were at the motel across the street.
The air was cold and the sky was clear as she stashed the cookies, then put on her helmet and mounted her own Harley. Seconds later, the quiet was broken by the rolling rumble of the engine as she toed up the kickstand, put the bike in gear, and rode off into the night.
The empty streets on the way to her apartment were a little eerie, but she was so tired she couldn’t work up the emotion to be scared. The streetlights were draped with Christmas garlands and red bows, but they were all one blur as Mercy sped toward home.
A city cop on neighborhood patrol saw her, recognized the lone bike and biker, and blinked his lights as she passed him.
She waved back and kept going.
When she stopped for a red light and realized she was the only person on this stretch of street, she didn’t breathe easy until the light turned green, and she moved on.
Finally, she was home. She eased up on the accelerator as she rolled through the gates of her apartment complex and parked the motorcycle beneath a light in plain view of the security cameras. She ran up the outer stairs to the second level and down the walkway to her apartment carrying her helmet and the cookies. No matter how many times she’d done this or how many times she’d moved since it happened, the fact that she’d once come home late at night to find out she’d been robbed, she never felt safe until she was in the apartment with the door locked behind her.
She tossed the helmet onto the sofa and took the cookies into the kitchen. Curious as to how much of a bonus Moose was giving this year, she was pleased to see a hundred-dollar bill.
“Nice,” she said and took it and her night’s worth of tips to the refrigerator, opened up the freezer, and put the money inside an empty box that had once held a biscuit mix.
She wasn’t sure how much money she had saved up, but last time she’d counted, it had been over two thousand dollars. It should have been in a bank, but these days, banks cost money to use, and she didn’t have any to spare, so she froze her assets.
The place smelled of stale coffee and something her neighbor across the hall had burned for dinner. She was tired and cold but too wired to sleep, so she went to her bedroom, stripped out of her clothes, and took a long hot shower.
She returned to the kitchen later to find something to eat. One quick glance in the refrigerator was all the reminder she needed that she still hadn’t grocery shopped. She emptied what was left of the milk into a bowl of cereal and ate it standing by the sink, remembering another Christmas in Savannah, her first all on her own.
* * *
Mercy was nineteen years old, between jobs, and as close to homeless as she’d ever been. She had come back to her apartment after a long day of job hunting, only to walk in on a burglar in the act. She screamed. He ran with what was left of her savings, and the hours afterward were a blur of tears and a fear that she would not be able to survive the setback. The only money she had left in the world was in her pocket.
The people in the adjoining apartments were sympathetic and curious, and a couple felt sorry for her and gave her a couple of twenties. She was standing in the hall waiting for the cops to clear her room when the neighbor from across the hall opened his door and came out. He’d moved in only two days prior, and during that time they’d done no more than nod and smile as they passed in the hall, but she liked his face. His eyes were kind, and his smile felt genuine.
It was apparent he’d been sleeping and had done no more than comb his fingers through his hair before he opened the door. The top snap on his jeans was undone, and he was pulling a sweatshirt over his head as he came out. She got a quick glimpse of a hard belly and wide shoulders before she looked away.
“What’s happening?” he asked as he stopped beside her. “I fell asleep with the TV on. When I woke up and turned it off, I heard all this.”
“I was robbed,” she said.
His empathy was instant. “Oh no! Oh, honey, are you okay? Were you hurt?”
Her voice was shaking. “My arrival scared him off.”
Without hesitation, he hugged her. The unexpected compassion undid her, and she began to cry.
And in the midst of that moment, the cops came out, and she pushed out of his arms.
“Ma’am, we’re through here. He busted the lock. I would suggest you find somewhere else to sleep for the night.”
“I don’t have somewhere else or someone else,” she said.
They shrugged and left the building.
The neighbors all went back into their apartments.
All but him.
She sighed and started for her apartment when he stopped her with a word. “Don’t.”
She turned, anger already settling in her heart. “Don’t what? That’s everything I own in this world. They took my money. I’m not giving up what clothes I have left too.”
She walked into her apartment and closed the door.
He opened it and walked in behind her. “Get your things. You can sleep at my place tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll figure something out.”
Mercy started to shake. “There is no ‘we’ in my life.”
“Fine. Then you’ll figure something out. But you can stay with me tonight anyway.”
She stared at his face, looking for a sign of danger and seeing none. “Yes. Okay.”
“Want help gathering up your things?”
“Then do what you need to do, and knock on my door when you have everything.”
He walked out.
She packed her bags while a cold anger washed through her. One more kick when she was down. It’s how her world worked. By the time she got across the hall, she had shut herself down.
“I made a bed for you on the sofa,” he said.
She left her bags by the door and then laid her coat on top of them as he locked up behind her. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re very welcome. Oh, hey, I just realized I don’t know your name.”
She grimaced. “Oh, just call me Lucky.”
“I have a feeling that’s not your real name, but it will do. I’m L.J. but my friends call me—”
“We’re not friends. L.J. will do,” she muttered.
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t argue. He’d seen animals trapped into a corner with no way out, and the look in her eyes was about the same. “Can I get you something to eat or drink?” he asked.
“No thanks. Just the bed. I’m tired. So fucking tired.”
A tear rolled down her cheek, but he was guessing she didn’t know it. “Then I’ll leave you alone. If you need anything later, just knock on my door.”
She nodded, dropped onto the sofa, and began taking off her shoes.
“Good night, Lucky. Sweet dreams,” he said.
She made a sound halfway between a snort and a sob. He left the room.
She went to bed. And three hours later woke up screaming.
He came out on the run with a gun in his hand.
By that time, she was sitting on the side of the sofa bed with her head in her hands. Her long, black hair was in tangles, and the sports bra and sweatpants she’d been sleeping in were drenched with sweat, even though the room was cold. His first thought was that she was sick.
“Sorry. Bad dreams,” she said and got up. “Where’s your bathroom?”
“Down the hall, first door on your left.”
She passed by him, so close he felt the heat from her body. And when she came out, she had washed up and dried off the sweat.
“You didn’t have to wait,” she said.
“I know. I just wanted to make sure you were okay and that you didn’t need anything…” Then he pointed at the clock. “It’s Christmas.”
Tears rolled down Mercy’s cheeks.
“Oh hell. I didn’t mean to make you cry,” he said.
“Well, you did, so what are you going to do about it?” she snapped.
L. J. flinched. “We could make love.”
Now she was the one who was startled. “What if I say no?”
He shrugged. “Then I go back to my room and sleep till daylight.”
The rage within her was choking. She wanted to feel something besides despair. “I am numb. I don’t think I will be able to feel.”
He held out his hand. “I know how to make you feel again.”
Mercy shivered, her mind racing. With a stranger? Just once. Just so she wouldn’t have to hurt.
She walked into his arms.
The ensuing hour was nothing short of magic. Mercy turned into someone she didn’t know existed. He turned her on and sent every emotion she had into overdrive. The sex was heart-stopping, and so was he. After it was over, he fell asleep with her still in his arms.
She watched his face as he slept until every facet of him was branded into her memory, but she wouldn’t sleep. An hour before daylight, she slipped out of his bed, dressed in the other room, and left without telling him good-bye.
* * *
A loud crash and then the squall of a tomcat somewhere outside broke Mercy’s reverie.
She put her bowl in the sink and walked to the window overlooking the parking lot.
The neighborhood cat was prowling around the Dumpster, and she saw the vague images of two people making out in a car near the back of the lot. Angry that she cared, she turned away. Exhaustion was finally catching up. It was after three in the morning when she rinsed the bowl and then paused in the doorway, making sure everything was turned off and locked up.
The silence in the apartment was suddenly broken by the distant sound of a phone ringing in a nearby apartment. The ringtone was “Jingle Bells.”
“Merry Christmas,” she muttered and went to bed.
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