Blue December by Karen McCullough

Blue December by Karen McCullough

Blue December

by Karen McCullough

Ebook ISBN: B00Q29CBNC

[ Romantic Suspense, MF ]

With money disappearing from registers in her department and inventory going AWOL as well, Meg Brandt is having a really bad Christmas.

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Chapter One


The sound system suggested that everyone should have a holly, jolly Christmas, but no one around, including Meg, seemed to be heeding the advice. The customer leaning against the sales counter wasn’t jolly; the other six waiting in line behind her didn’t look at all amused; Heather, the young sales associate, was close to tears; and Meg’s stomach begged for another dose of Maalox.

Meg glanced again at the piece of paper she held. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “We just can’t accept checks that aren’t imprinted.” And especially not for three hundred and twenty dollars, she thought. She didn’t say so aloud. Meg looked up and met the woman’s furious eyes.

“I don’t see why not,” the irate customer said. “I used one at JC Penney just this afternoon.”

Meg didn’t voice her doubts on that score. “It doesn’t matter. Our store’s policy—”

“Are you trying to imply that my check isn’t good?” The woman’s pitch and volume rose steadily to levels that were beginning to attract attention in the next aisle. “It’s libel or something like that. You’re just assuming the check is bad ’cause my name ain’t printed on it? I could sue you. Can’t you call the bank or something?”

You know very well it’s almost nine o’clock and the banks are closed, Meg thought. She swallowed her growing irritation and suspicion with an effort of will and managed to sound calm. “I’m afraid not. Do you have a credit card you could put this on?”

Glancing at Meg, Heather shook her head and said, “The machine wouldn’t take either of them.”

Figures, Meg decided, guarding her face. “We could hold these things for you for a day or two,” she offered. “You can go to the bank tomorrow and cash a check. Or, if you prefer, we can put them on layaway. “

“I had to drive twenty-two miles to get here,” the woman protested. “And I got arthritis and it ain’t easy for me to move around. I came here special today just to get them clothes.” She launched into a loud, angry tirade that questioned the store’s devotion to its customers, attacked its absurd and libelous policies, and impugned the integrity of the associate and Meg herself. Meg nodded to Heather to cancel the transaction and take the next customer’s merchandise while she walked around the counter and maneuvered the woman a little to the side. The outburst continued unabated.

She grew even louder after Meg told her that the store manager wasn’t currently available, nor was the assistant manager. The woman was turning red in the face, and since she was rather overweight anyway, Meg began to worry about the possibility of her having a heart attack. People were stopping to stare at the spectacle they presented.

Meg was so focused on the angry woman, wondering how she was going to both soothe and get rid of her, that she actually jumped when a male voice behind her asked, “Is something wrong?”

She whirled to face the newcomer, a stranger who, nevertheless, acted as though he belonged there. No, not entirely a stranger. Meg remembered that he’d been introduced at the last staff meeting as the new assistant to the head of security. At the time she’d been torn between wondering why the head of security suddenly needed an assistant and watching the reaction of the female clerks to the new employee, so she hadn’t actually paid much attention to him. Anyway that had been almost a week ago, and the preholiday chaos had occupied most of her waking (and some of her sleeping) moments since.

She avoided making an introduction since she couldn’t remember the man’s name and explained the situation to him. He had cool hazel-green eyes that melted into warmth and fiery charm, which he directed toward the angry woman with all the deliberate aim of an archer. Within minutes he was guiding the woman toward the customer-service desk so she could lodge a formal complaint. Meg breathed a sigh of relief as they left. When the man turned to glance at her briefly as they rounded the comer to the main aisle, she offered him a grateful smile; the look he gave in return held no hint of warmth or charm. It wasn’t unfriendly either. She searched her mind for a description. Unreadable. Inscrutable—that was the word she wanted.

Meg initialed the voided transaction slip, hoping she could now get back to her desk and the stack of sales registers that refused to balance out. No such luck, of course. She’d barely tucked her pen back into her pocket when the public-address system summoned her to the Juniors’ department.

A customer was attempting to return a dress for which she had no sales slip. Wambash’s normal policy allowed merchandise to be exchanged without a sales slip, but not returned for cash. Exceptions required staff approval. Even at that, the policy tended to be abused.

This case proved pretty straightforward. The woman had bought a size-nine dress in a fit of blind optimism, but ten minutes inside it had forced vanity to yield to comfort. Unfortunately they hadn’t any size elevens in that style, or anything particularly similar. Meg looked at the outfit. The tag had been removed but the little plastic cord still hung under the arm. She sniffed lightly and nodded. It hadn’t been worn or laundered; the brand-new, fresh-from-the-store odor still clung to the material.

“I think we can give her money back,” Meg said.

She took the refund slip the associate handed her and filled it out quickly, signing her name on the bottom. She left it for the young woman working the register to ring up.

While she walked back to her office, she wondered if the irate woman whose check she’d refused really would file a complaint and what the fallout from that might be. Not much, she suspected. She had worse problems, anyway; the problem of the discrepancy in the sales figures weighed heavily on her mind. She turned her thoughts to the mystery of the frequent cash losses from the registers and considered various possible explanations for the shortages. Once in her tiny cubbyhole of an office, Meg had to pick her way around the boxes of defective merchandise that ringed her desk. She almost got into her chair before the phone rang.

One of the temporary seasonal associates wanted to know if they had any more of a particular girl’s dress. A customer wanted it in a size six and all they could find were fours, eights, and tens.

“Did you check the stockroom?” Meg tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder and searched for her pen beneath the stacks of paper.

“I didn’t see any there.”

“That’s where they’d be if we had any more. You might call across town and see if they have one. The number should be posted next to the phone.”

Meg sighed as the woman on the other end hung up. She wasn’t sure she’d survive the next couple of weeks.

The sound system was pouring out a soothing rendition of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” As she picked up the top sheet from the stack of sales printouts, the irony of the carol’s title struck her. No one considered Christmas a restful season anymore. The closer it got to the twenty-fifth of December, the more the customers grumbled and the employees moaned. There were never enough people—colds and flu took their toll, and the temporary help hired for the season frequently proved unreliable, if not worse. Retail workers had nightmares about the Yuletide.

Lately Meg had been having nightmares, period. Her dreams tended to be populated by dancing stacks of spreadsheets with figures from the registers that frequently failed to equal the adding-machine-tape totals of the actual cash recorded by the bookkeepers. That her department wasn’t the only one experiencing shortages didn’t comfort her much. There was also the problem of the disappearing inventory—some fourteen thousand dollars’ worth of it in the past six months. That might or might not be related to the lost money.

She pulled open the bottom drawer of the desk, found the bottle of Maalox, and took a good swig straight from the container. Her temples were beginning to throb too, which was at least one pain too many. She pulled out the pack of Tylenol and swallowed a tablet dry. It stuck in her throat. Meg rattled the two cans sitting at the hack of her desk. One still had a small quantity of diet Coke in it, so she used it to wash down the pill. The liquid was warm, flat, and tasted like prune juice as it mixed with the Maalox in her mouth.

She studied the columns of numbers on the register spreadsheet, trying to find any clues that might help her sort out where the money was going. After ten minutes the figures began to blur as her eyes rebelled against the abuse of staring at a page of characters produced by a printer in desperate need of a fresh ink cartridge.

She was rescued—sort of—by the sound system summoning her to the Boys department. A glance at her watch indicated that it was twenty to ten. Almost closing time. Meg particularly hated the late nights of the holiday season. She longed to be home in her favorite recliner with a glass of wine and a good book in her hands.

The problem in Boys was routine. Checks in excess of three-hundred dollars required staff approval. Meg flipped the slip over and noted that Lori, another associate, had already called it in and gotten a clean bill of health on the account. The customer’s driver’s license and telephone numbers, as well as the address, were printed on the front and the check number was in the four thousands. The garrulous elderly customer explained that she’d just finished Christmas shopping for her six grandsons, who were all under the age of eight. Meg initialed the check and wished the woman happy holidays.

The sound system warned that the store would close in ten minutes. There was no point in going back to her office now, since she would have to be here to close a register for one of the associates, who had to leave on the dot of ten.

Boys was under control, Meg decided, scanning the area quickly. Both registers had lines, but only two or three people in each. Girls was in somewhat worse shape. Debbie and Jennifer had five customers at their desk in the Little Girls section; Heather, handling the other register by herself, had four people waiting. Meg looked across the aisle. Infants wasn’t overly crowded.

Not too bad, really, although it was a certainty that they wouldn’t get everyone out of the store before ten fifteen. About a third of the people now milling around and looking at displays would head for the registers within a few minutes, and some would even wait until the announcement that the store was closed to get in line. Meg just hoped there were no more complications. She joined Heather at her station.

“Holding up?” she asked the young woman. Heather handed change to a customer while Meg put the merchandise into a bag. “So far,” she answered, pushing golden-blond hair out of her face. Meg envied Heather’s coloring—her own shade of blond was so faded it verged on mousy, but she never seemed to have time to mess with rinses or dyes. Nor could she do much about the peculiar brown eyes she’d inherited. Heather’s were the stunning blue that blondes were supposed to possess.

“Twelve days,” Meg said as the girl started ringing up the next customer’s purchases.

Heather grimaced. “I don’t think my feet are going to make it. And I’ve got exams next week. “

Meg groaned. “Oh, no. Will you be working at all? I don’t think I can do this without you.” Heather was one of her regular employees, not a seasonal, and despite being just seventeen, she was one of the most intelligent, sensible, and reliable people in the store.

Meg wished another customer happy holidays as the voice from the machine announced that the store was now closed. Their line suddenly acquired two more customers. Meg looked around to see how the other departments were faring. After deciding that none of them were out of control, she noticed the new assistant head of security strolling slowly along the aisle, eyes alert. He met Meg’s gaze for a moment. No change of expression crossed the cool, poised mask of his calm face.

She turned as Heather said something to her that she didn’t catch. Meg handed another bag to a customer, sneaking another glance at the man surveying the aisle. Heather followed her line of sight and grinned. “Hot, isn’t he?” Heather said. “Half the women in the store are panting.”

Meg nodded. “I watched the reaction last week when he was introduced at the meeting.” She studied the man as he turned a corner and began to move away from her. About five-ten, slim but nicely proportioned, probably in his mid-to-late twenties, he had dark hair and a thin, lightly tanned face, which was dominated by those green eyes. Yeah, he was hot. She just hoped he wasn’t hot for pinning the store’s problems on her. She dragged her eyes away from his now-disappearing form to concentrate on getting the tags on the next customer’s merchandise ready for Heather to scan.

By the time they were checking out the last customer, Cindy was already closing out the register in Infants, Lori had started on one in Boys, and Debbie was counting out the two-hundred dollars for the register bag on the other side of Girls. Meg left Heather to work on her terminal while she headed for the other station in Boys.

The procedure was second nature to Meg. Her mind was on other things as she opened the cash drawer and set the terminal to printing out the transaction list. She counted out the two-hundred dollars in cash that would be tomorrow’s seed money and separated the stack of “other stuff,” putting checks in one pile, large denomination bills in a second, return slips, and other miscellany into a third.

She’d take the sales register reports home with her and work on them in the morning. A thought crossed her mind—she should still have the work schedules for the past few weeks. They might bear a bit of cross-referencing. Meg sighed and looked up as she was sorting the various piles into the appropriate bags. The security assistant—she wished she could remember his name—was roaming through the department again, and he watched her for several long seconds. Meg’s mental antennae rose and began to spew out warnings to her brain. For the moment she chose not to consider what those messages suggested.

Heather and Debbie headed for the escalator to the third floor and the cashier’s office. Meg turned off the register terminal, gathered up the bags, and followed. She watched as both young women checked out with Sharon Williams, the head cashier. Sharon was a tall brunette with striking blue eyes and a sometimes gruff manner that intimidated some of the associates.

“You look about all in,” Sharon commented as Meg handed over her bags.

“That describes it,” Meg answered with a sigh. “Christmas can’t come soon enough.”

“Dear heaven, not for me. I’ve still got a bunch of shopping to do,” Sharon said. “And food to cook. My current mother-in-law has very definite ideas about how Christmas should be celebrated.”

Meg couldn’t remember if this was mother-in-law number three or four. “Why worry about it?”

Sharon shrugged. “I think I want to hold on to this one. Not the mother-in-law, she’s… Well, anyway, Tom suits me pretty well.” Tom was the current husband, number three, Meg thought. They’d been married for just over six months. “I’ll even humor his mother, as long as she doesn’t get too out of hand. What are you doing for Christmas?”

“Absolutely nothing,” Meg said. “I hope.”

“Not visiting family?”

“My parents live in Kentucky, and my sisters are in Atlanta. Either place is a long drive from Maryland, and since we have this ‘no time off’ policy, there’s no way I can get there before Christmas. I’ll go and visit in the spring. Anyway, it’ll be wonderful to just loll around in my bathrobe all day. More of a real vacation.”

“Hey, if you’d like some dinner, you’re welcome to join us,” Sharon suggested. “Of course, you’d have to put up with Mother Williams and her ideas on how everything should be done.”

Meg laughed and declined the offer. She might not be thrilled about spending Christmas alone, but there were worse fates. The stack of papers still sat on her desk when she stopped by her office. It took some rooting around to find the old schedules, which were hiding, as it turned out, under a stack of transmittal notices containing problems of one kind or another. She scooped up both sets of papers and stuffed them into the tattered old leather shoulder bag that served as a briefcase when she needed one. She set up the data-transfer program to begin sending sales and inventory information to Wambash’s central computer and did her assigned locking up.

The lights and the escalator had been turned off by the time she’d collected her things. Meg skipped down the stationary metal steps toward the door to the parking lot. The clatter of her shoes echoed in the silent store.

The other employees had already gone. Only the auxiliary lights shone from the walls at periodic intervals, leaving patterns of shadow across the aisles. Meg pulled her keys out of her purse.

The figure emerged from one of the darkest areas ahead of her, between two long racks of women’s coats. The sudden appearance of someone in the aisle where there shouldn’t have been anyone froze Meg into terrified immobility for several long seconds. While she stood paralyzed, she was aware of her heart starting to pound, sending blood pulsing along her veins, and sweat beginning to form along skin that roiled with some kind of anticipation. The ‘fight or night’ reaction, she’d heard it called—the adrenaline rush that sent pulse and blood pressure up and set respiration to panting. For the moment, however. Meg was incapable of either fighting or fleeing.

‘“Working late, Miss Brandt?” someone asked from out of the shadows.

She thought she recognized the voice, but… “Who’s there?” The words not quite as steady and forceful as she would have liked.

‘“Rick Farrell.” The shadow moved forward until she could make out the slender shape and his face was discernible in the dim light. Her tentative identification was confirmed.

Meg let out a long sigh as muscles began to unlock and sag. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” the assistant head of security said.

She shook her head. “I didn’t think there was anyone else still here, so I wasn’t expecting it.” She sighed. “I hate these late nights.”

The man nodded and eyed the case suspended from her shoulder. “Not just working late, but taking it home with you as well,” he said. “You’re a glutton for punishment.”

The warning bells jangled again. Did he want her to open the case so he could see if she had a fistful of money stuffed in it? “I can’t make any headway in figuring out why the registers don’t balance when I’m getting interrupted every five minutes to approve a check or deal with some irate customer. And speaking of that, thanks for your help this evening. Did the woman really lodge a complaint?”

For the first time she saw a grin cross his face. Rick Farrell. She filed the name away. Hot, she decided, studying his lean, angular features, understated the case. The man was handsome.

“Oddly enough, she changed her mind when she saw the form. She said it was just too much trouble. Are you headed out to the parking lot?”

Meg nodded and they started toward the exit.

“Did you offer her any alternatives to using the check?” Rick asked, pulling a set of keys out of his pocket. He unlocked the heavy glass door, then re-locked it once they were on the sidewalk outside the store.

“The machine rejected two of her credit cards. She declined to let us hold the merchandise or put it on layaway.”

“Not a professional,” he said as they walked across the parking lot toward the handful of cars still waiting in the employees’ area. In the orange halogen glow of the overhead lights his face looked hard and determined. Meg wondered about his background and qualifications for his job.

“Hardly,” she agreed.

He looked down at her and his expression didn’t change. “Thompson’s calling a senior staff meeting for tomorrow afternoon,” he said, switching subjects abruptly. Arnold Thompson was the manager of the Waltersburg. Maryland, branch of Wambash’s, Inc., “The Store with the Answer to All Your Family’s Needs.”

Meg dug in her purse and unclipped the keychain from the hook that held it in place. “I hadn’t heard.”

“He’ll be sending a memo around tomorrow. I heard the meeting will be at three or four.”

They both stopped when they got to her three-year-old Toyota. He waited while she unlocked and opened the door. Instead of getting in, she turned to face him again. “I presume the discrepancies in the registers are on the agenda?”

He studied her face for a moment. Nothing could be read in his own features. “They are the agenda,” he said. “Are you working tomorrow?”

“On a Friday?” she asked. “Two weeks before Christmas? I don’t think I could manage to get off if I was dying.”

“I think everyone in the store is ready for a vacation.” His face seemed to relax slightly for a moment as he leaned against the open door of her car.

“I’m more than ready,” she admitted. “Christmas can’t come soon enough. I just want to get it over with. At least we get the day off. Then back to the circus.”

“Do you hate your job?” he asked.

Warning bells started sounding again. “I like this job. I just hate the rush and hassle of Christmas. I hate being three tasks behind all the time. I hate not having enough time to draw a deep breath. None of us really has time for a staff meeting tomorrow.”

He straightened and his face tensed up again. “Still, we’ll all have to be there. Management is worried about the losses. Corporate’s starting to make noise about it.”

Meg nodded, drew a long breath, and expelled it slowly. “Blast. Thanks for the warning. See you tomorrow.” She got into her car, pulled the door closed, and jammed the keys into the ignition. He watched until he heard her motor start, then turned and headed toward his own vehicle, a dark-colored pickup truck.

The car responded to her heavy foot on the accelerator and sped across the parking lot on a straight line to the exit. She could hardly wait to get out of the place and away from work. Away from the man who might think she was the prime suspect in the disappearing cash problem, too.

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