Candy Lane Christmas

A new Madison Creek novella is available.

Just in time for the holidays

Candy Lane Christmas

A Madison Creek Novella


Jackie Castle

Now Available on All Ebook Distributors

Chapter One

The glint of the morning sun caught on Candyce Barkley’s one-half karat engagement ring, casting a rainbow of sparkles on the visor. She yanked it off her finger. Jabbing the down button on the window, she hurled the offensive reminder of her sordid past out onto Highway 35N.
A gale of cool autumn wind blasted her. Her pink hair whipped around her face until she hit the up button, with a satisfied nod.
For the past year, Candyce had kept up the ruse that all was well, plastering on smiles as fake as the gem in that sorry ring. When she’d had the ring appraised and found it was as worthless as the sorry jerk who gave it to her, she focused on finding a way to climb out of the miry Kyle-Moore pit she’d, unfortunately, allowed herself to fall into.
“That felt so good.” A triumphant smile played across Candyce’s trembling raspberry-red lips. She’d worn the mockery for so long, she’d practically forgotten the ring was there. The only way to break free from the prison Kyle built for her had been to pretend all was well, and that she was clueless to his gambling and cheating.
“Buck up, buttercup!” She told her reflection in the rearview mirror. “Today’s a new day. A new start.” An adventure all of her own making. Nobody to manage her life. Nobody to….
How could Kyle Moore have taken so much from her without her even realizing?
No, no, no. Don’t go there! Boy, it was so easy to make those U-turns back to Pastville.
Nobody would ever convince Candyce that God hadn’t heard her prayers and sent Debra Reynolds to help find a way to fling open the doors to freedom. And a fresh start.
Debra came to their upscale Myrtle Beach restaurant hoping to sway the hot new Chef Kyle into signing with her publishing house. But he’d set his sights on more lofty ventures. Deb had been warned to not return without a contract. So she ended up sticking around long enough to find out what a total control-freak Kyle could be.
She’d also seen how cruel Kyle was to those he thought were beneath him, which included Candyce, even though she was supposed to be his fiancĂ©e.
After seeing the creative desserts Candyce could make for the posh customers of their establishment, Debra returned to her publishing house with a new offer and the Escape the Madness plan was born. 
Candyce checked her travel app. Another half hour to get through Columbus, Ohio and she’d make a quick stop to stretch her legs and find something for breakfast. That dingy hotel where she’d caught a bit of a nap last night had given her the creeps. Don’t think about that, either. The Lucky Motel 5 was behind her. Myrtle Beach was behind her. Kyle and his lying, conniving, trickery— was behind her.
Gently slapping her cheek, she scolded herself for thinking backward again. Instead, she forced her focus on returning to her hometown of Madison Creek, Michigan. Hopefully, they’d forgotten all about her antics way-back-when and would be thrilled to have a candy store in the tourist district. Between the start-up grant the town’s restructuring committee had awarded her and the money from her cookbook advance, she had everything needed to set up her little corner store.
So long as not too many people remembered the old Candyce Barkley, she was confident the shop would do well. At least, she hoped so.
“No, don’t start strolling through Worriesville. One step at a time. Just one at a time.”
No more gloomy thoughts. Only happy ones were allowed. For the next few miles of farmlands and blue skies, she thought about what kind of holiday displays she would set up for her grand opening. “Definitely a gingerbread town with cookie cut figures and trees made from hard candies and gumdrops.” She tapped the steering wheel, thinking. So many choices to make and nobody to ask permission when she wanted to try something new. Also, nobody to say that her ideas were pure stupidity.
A silver Jeep zoomed around her and swerved back into her lane only a couple of feet from her front bumper. Candyce glanced at her phone, realizing the driver was using the same travel app she was.
“Way to go FinQ532! Think you’re something with your little army tank icon?” She resisted the urge to send him a message asking him since when did Cracker Jacks start giving out driver’s licenses as prizes. She wasn’t supposed to use the phone while behind the wheel, but she did have her voice to text activated.
In the distance, the Columbus skyline came into view, pushing away the annoyed thoughts about the rude driver. Candyce’s stomach growled. Thinking of candy and other sweets did have its pitfalls. She blew out a long breath and decided she had enough gas to stop somewhere on the other side of the city. When she refueled, she’d get a few snacks, too.
She’d have to work harder at guarding her mind and focusing on the present moment. If she didn’t, all those fears and self-doubts Kyle had instilled in her would resurface and lap her up like a dog after spilled soda.
Nope, she needed to set her mind on what was before her. First, get to Madison Creek and hope the folks there had short memories and forgiving hearts.

*  *  *  *

Finley Quinn pulled his silver Jeep Wrangler up to pump number ten at the Gas & Go. Rubbing his tired eyes, he checked the travel app to see how much farther he had to drive. Six more hours! That might require several more caffeine drinks.
He chuckled to see three other drivers using the same travel app were also fueling up. He wondered where they were all going.
Before leaving the warmth of the cab, he tapped the weather app next.
“Fantastic, snow along the state line. Of course.” He scanned the map one more time, checking for an alternate route around the storm, but there wasn’t. Once he hit Michigan, if not before, he’d be driving right into what he hoped wouldn’t turn into a blizzard. A light snow wasn’t such a bad thing and might actually stir up his holiday spirit. Maybe.
Zipping his Red Wings jacket, he slipped his phone into the side pocket of his fatigues. He hopped out into the blustery wind and rushed to swipe his card, hop-jogging the whole time to keep the warmth flowing through his muscles. Already, he missed the southern region where he’d been helping with boot camp training the past two weeks. Only three more of these stints and he’d be done with his time in the Army Reserves.
Then what?
Finn blew out a puff of white foggy air as he shoved the nozzle into the tank. He considered stopping for a decent breakfast. There was that little cafe two miles up the highway. They had the best omelets.
The pump clicked. Finn replaced the nozzle, took his receipt, and then headed inside for a coffee. The little store was packed. Thanksgiving was still a week away. Maybe some were getting early starts. He inwardly grumbled over the line to the coffee station but waited anyway. Maybe he should just get a few snacks and get on home before that storm had a chance to make the roads too difficult to drive. He checked his phone again, noting there were now five others here using the travel app. It must be growing in popularity.
He glanced around, wondering which one of them was CandyLane323. He’d once had a friend back in school who’d been dubbed with the nickname Candy Bar.
Before he lost himself in the sweet memories of his once best friend, a flash of hot pink hair darted in front of him, breaking through the line.
“Excuse me. Just need to get through.”
He jumped backward, stomping on someone’s foot. The woman’s purple sweater was nearly as outlandish as that hair.
“Hey,” the fellow behind him protested, shoving him forward.
Finn muttered a quick apology while checking his app again. He’d bet his next month’s wages that CandyLane323 had just breezed past. The pink hair and bright clothes had to fit that…wait. He craned his neck to look over the shelves of chips.
The pink-haired woman stood before the row of crackers and trail mix, bouncing on the balls of her feet in the same way…
“Uh, Candy Bar?” He said out loud. Impossible. Last he’d heard about his old partner in high school crime, she was working at some fancy bakery by the Atlantic Ocean.
The woman slowly turned. Her startling blue eyes, those very familiar eyes, widened, then narrowed. “What did you just call… wait.” She poked a polished purple fingernail at him. “I know you.”
“Un-bul-ieve-able!” He patted his chest. “Finn? Or you used to call me—”
“Shark Fin!” The bags cupped in her arms cascaded to the floor. With a cute little hop, she threw out her arms and rushed to him, wrapping him in a tight hug. “Finley James Quinn! I can’t…Wow, you’ve really filled out buster. Look at you.” She playfully shoved him away.
Yep, she hadn’t changed one bit, except for the crazy hair. He wrapped his little friend tightly in his arms, as he used to do. Then he quickly stepped back, reminding himself those days were long gone.
“How have you been?” He grasped her arms to keep her from hopping up and down. She’d always been in perpetual motion, even as a kid.
Her bobbing stopped as her grin dropped like the ears of a wet dog. She quickly recovered, but her attempt was a mask of her former smile. “Oh, I’ve been good. But I’m heading for something great. Moving back home. Are you heading there, too?”
This was news to him. Why on earth would such a famous bakery chef return to a small dying town?
No, not dying. They were trying to revive it. Trying, being the key word.
“I said,” Candyce repeated, “What about you? Oh, wait, let me get my stuff.” She rushed back to the chip aisle and collected the bags she’d dropped in her excitement. He stepped out of line and helped her. Returning to the line, she waited beside him, the top of her head barely reaching his armpit. He grinned, remembering how he used to prop his elbow on top of her head and use her as a leaning post. She’d always complain about the foul odor and beg him to carry deodorant in his pocket. Ah, good times. 
“Tell me what you’ve been up to, Finley. Besides working out.” Her gaze swept up from his fatigues to his face, then back down to his chest before skimming past his hands… was she looking for a ring?
He gave her a playful shove with his elbow. “Stop checking me out!”
“Just admiring. I’ve always loved how easily I could make you blush.” Her lilting giggle caused his face to burn more.
Still up to her teasing, playful hijinks. His own gaze scanned her hands to find she also didn’t have a ring, not that that really meant anything. Except he noticed an indent around her left ring finger. Interesting.
“So, you’re seriously returning to Madison Creek?” He wanted to ask but why except he feared the incredulity in his tone would be rude.
“I am.” Her smile wavered as she stared down at her loot. “I… uh… oh, dude, I have so much to tell you. Maybe after the holidays, we can meet up for lunch?”
“How long will you be visiting?” He stood before the coffee pots. Vanilla, hazelnut, regular, or decaf. He filled a large cup with regular, then moved to the side while he smashed the lid on. They never would go on right, and this lid was no exception. He tried to play off the lopsided cap like it was no big deal.
“For good.” She took the cup from his hands and tossed the crinkled lid aside. “Helps if you’ll give it a little twist as you put it on. Not sure why, but it does.” She handed back the drink. Steam wafted from the spout. “I’m opening my own business. Candy Lane Confectionery is what I’m calling it.”
His heart halted, did a strange little flip, then raced on with this news. Sure, they’d been best friends back in school, but that was almost eight years ago. At first, they’d kept up with each other throughout college, but then he’d enlisted in the Army, and she’d moved off to New York before they lost touch. Last he’d heard, she was in a relationship with some big name chef down in Myrtle Beach. After that bit of news, he’d not cared to hear any more.
“Why in the world?” His head shook in disbelief. “Why Madison, of all places? Someone with your expertise? I don’t get it.”
Candyce blew out a long breath, fluffing up a few strands of the pink hair that hung in her pixie-shaped face. “It’s a really long story. One I’m sure you’ll not want me to bore you with.”
He sipped the coffee, flinching when the hot liquid burned a path down his throat. There wasn’t that much of a rush to get home. If they were headed in the same direction… “Have you had breakfast? Two miles down is the best stop for pancakes and omelets you’ve ever had.”
“Well, I’ve had some pretty amazing pancakes and omelets, but… yes, I’m starving.”
Was he really going to do this? She’d been nothing but trouble back when. Her pink hair and matching lips confirmed that she most likely still was. “Great. I’m in the silver and black jeep outside. Follow me. I’ll try not to lose you.”
Her gaze narrowed over her pinched lips. “Oh really? Well, you must have forgotten who you are dealing with, buster.”
He grinned. He hadn’t forgotten. Not at all.

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