Chapter 1

“Stop, stop, STOP!” Richard paced back and forth in front of the stage, running his fingers through his hair hard enough to pull it out. “What are you people doing? Have any of you even read the play?”

The actors on stage looked at one another as if trying to decide who he was talking to.

“Don’t look at each other. I’m the director!” Richard said, jabbing himself in the chest. “Look at me when I’m talking.”

Their heads obediently turned toward him.

“I’ve been involved in theater for over twenty years, and this is the worst rehearsal I have ever seen. I’ve been to first readings that were more convincing than this so-called performance. It’s less than a week until opening night; now is the time to polish blocking, to add nuances to your interpretations of characters. You people don’t even know your lines yet.”

I saw Seth Murdstone, the man playing Scrooge, trying to hide his copy of the script.

Richard went on. “A Christmas Carol is one of the most popular plays of all time. It’s been performed in every variation possible, from traditional to musical to the Muppets. Yet somehow, you people have missed the entire point of the play!”

Richard stopped pacing to glare at them. “It can’t be done—it just cannot be done.” Then he stormed out the door. The cast just watched him go, as if a tornado had blown by.

Even my cousin Vasti, who could throw a mean tantrum herself, was speechless for nearly thirty seconds. Then she wailed, “Laurie Anne, you’ve got to do something!”

“He’ll calm down in a minute,” I said, trying to sound as if I believed it, but I’d never known Richard to act that way before. At least, I hadn’t before this trip to Byerly. Since then, I’d seen several other explosions from him, each worse than the last.

I was the pregnant one; I was supposed to be the one with raging hormones. But ever since Vasti had called to talk Richard into taking over the production, he’d become as temperamental as John Huston and an Arabian stallion put together.

Vasti was still looking at me entreatingly, so I said, “I’ll go talk to him.” Then I levered myself out of the chair, once again surprised at how hard it was to maneuver while five months pregnant.

Seth came over and offered me a hand. “I’m sorry, Laurie Anne, I know I’m the reason Richard is so bent out of shape. I’m trying, I really am, but Scrooge has so many lines to learn. I’ll keep at it; don’t you worry.”

“It’s nothing to do with you, Seth,” I said, which was at the very least a white lie. “Richard’s just tired.”

“Be sure and tell him how sorry I am,” he said as I headed for the door.

I felt bad for him. No matter how hard Seth tried to act as nasty as Scrooge was written, he just didn’t have it in him. When he said, “Bah, humbug,” it sounded as if he were joking.

I couldn’t imagine why Vasti had given him the part. Scrooge is usually portrayed as a skinny fellow, old and pinched-looking. Seth, on the other hand, was a well-built man with a full head of snow-white hair, and was always smiling and laughing. He was as old as Scrooge was supposed to be, but he sure didn’t look it.

Had I been back in Boston, where Richard and I lived, I wouldn’t have dreamed of going outside in December without a coat on, and I would probably have grabbed gloves, a hat, and a scarf, too. But after so many Massachusetts winters, North Carolina winters seem almost springlike. Besides which, being pregnant kept me warm, even in Boston. So it was a relief to leave the stuffy recreation center building for the brisk, sunny day waiting outside.

My usually mild-mannered husband was standing not far from the door, his hands jammed in his pockets as he kicked at the red clay dirt and muttered to himself.

“Hey,” I said.

He didn’t answer.


There was still no answer.

“Richard, I think I’m in labor.”

That got his attention. He turned white as a sheet and started toward me.

“Just kidding,” I said.

He stopped short and thumped his chest, presumably to make sure his heart was still beating. “Laura, please don’t joke about that.”

“Sorry,” I said, struggling to keep a smile off my face. “I had to get your attention somehow.”

“You got it, all right.”

“So do you want to go home now, or should we stay through Christmas?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“We can either spend the rest of the holidays here relaxing, or fly back to Boston and spend Christmas alone the way we planned in the first place. You just said that there was no way you could whip the cast into shape in time. So why beat your head against a brick wall? Give it up now and let Vasti worry about it.”

“That wouldn’t be exactly kind to Vasti, would it?” he said hesitantly.

“Who cares?” I said. “She didn’t tell you the whole story, or you’d never have agreed to come. You were supposed to have two weeks to rehearse, not just one. Besides, you can’t stage a decent production with this cast—they’re hopeless. I mean, Seth Murdstone is as nice a man as you’d ever want to meet, but he’s a terrible actor.”

“I know,” Richard said. “I hate losing my temper at him, but I think he got that accent from listening to Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.”

“What about the others? None of them can act.”

“That’s not true. Bob Cratchit keeps getting better, and Mrs. Cratchit is already wonderful. The Spirits of Christmas aren’t too bad, and even though Scrooge’s nephew needs work, I could coax it out of him.”

“I suppose you could,” I said, “but there’s no way you can get it done by Friday night.”

“Maybe I could,” he said speculatively. “If we lose the phony British accents so we get a little authenticity … We’d have to rehearse morning, noon, and night, but maybe …”

“In less than a week?”

“Look, Laura,” he said heatedly, “I’ve waited my whole life to direct. Do you really think I’d give up my only chance because the cast needs a little work?”

“A little work?”

“Okay, a lot of work. I can do it. They can do it. We can do it.” He strode purposefully toward the door, then turned back. “I thought you were a programmer, not a psychologist.”

I grinned. “I’m practicing for when the baby throws his or her first tantrum.”

“Was I that bad?”

“Oh, yeah.”

He looked at the door. “Do you think they’ll take me back?”

“Of course. They’d be scared not to.”

He looked sheepish. “I suppose I should get a grip on my temper.”

“Does that mean that we’re staying?”

“That’s what it means,” he said. “I’m going to give the people in Byerly a show they’ll never forget!” He started back inside, his shoulders squared like a drill sergeant determined to whip a platoon of raw recruits into shape.