Christmas Comeback (to me)
Erik or “Erik the Wall” Engen, formerly one of the most feared and admired goalies in the International Hockey League, now an executive in his family’s holiday ornament company, has returned to his hometown of Noelle, Wisconsin during its annual Nutcracker Festival. It’s his job to evaluate the prospects of the Engen Nutcracker Factory, the company founded by his beloved grandfather.
After travelling the world creating murals, artist Stella Larson has returned to Noelle as well. Erik and Stella soon realize the old feelings between them linger, but she can’t seem to forget or forgive him for breaking her heart a decade before.
With a little hope and some Christmas magic, can Erik make his way back to the woman he always carried with him in his heart?
Release Date: November 3, 2020
Genre: Contemporary Christmas Romance
A White Satin Romance
Rear ending a reindeer, even a faux one, is a bad beginning to any morning, especially to a December morning during the holiday season. Erik, or Erik the Wall, Engen, formerly one of the most feared and admired goalies in the International Hockey League, glared through the snow-obscured windshield of his black Dodge Challenger Hellcat at the brown, antlered figure approaching his car. As it was after seven in the morning in December in Noelle, Wisconsin, it remained dark and overcast.
The two-legged reindeer with the soft curves of a female and a flashing red nose made her way over to the driver’s side of his car. Shaking his head against the absurdity of the image, Erik rubbed at the bridge of his nose. Of course, only in Noelle would he literally bump into a reindeer on his way to his sister’s home. He’d driven through the night after working a full day, and he was exhausted. This development was the pièce de résistance.
The reindeer apparition appeared at his window and knocked assertively on his window with an undeniably human, leather-gloved hand. He lowered his window, and snow and cold air immediately swirled into the warm cab of his car. The reindeer costume-clad woman whose lime green Prius he had just rear ended had her glasses off and was trying to wipe them off on the furry sleeve of her reindeer outfit.
“Give me a minute. I can’t see a thing right now. My glasses are photochromatic, and they’re fogging up.”
Stella Larson. His heart lurched. Of all the reindeer to hit, why did it have to be her? She hadn’t recognized him yet, but she would. Despite the reindeer apparel, she appeared much the same as the last time he’d seen her. Beautiful. Was this a cruel cosmic joke? He could have rear ended anyone else’s car in the town of Noelle, Wisconsin, but it had to be one belonging to the girl, now the woman, he’d jilted more than a decade before. It seemed to be more than a coincidence, more a cruel twist of fate.
He watched her as she further smeared her glasses. Back in high school, Stella Larson hadn’t worn glasses, but otherwise, she hadn’t changed at all. She remained tall and lean with long lines and a graceful posture. Her complexion was as fresh now at twenty-eight or twenty-nine as it had been when she was seventeen. If possible, her cheekbones were even more elegant. There was a dusting of freckles across her nose, and he knew that behind those smoked-up lenses were green eyes with ridiculously long lashes. Her thick, curly blond and brunette mane lay in a loose braid that had escaped the reindeer hood and draped over her shoulder. She’d always been the kind of woman that men and women stopped to stare at, she was just that beautiful, and, he had to admit, Stella made a very cute reindeer.
“Are you all right?” he asked. His voice came out like gravel. He cleared his throat.
“I’m fine. Fortunately, you were barely moving, but I need to get a better look at my car. I can’t really see out here.”
“I didn’t see your car. I am sorry.”
“My car is tiny,” she acknowledged, “and the windows are so darkly tinted on your sports car. Is that dark even legal?”
Erik gritted his teeth. “She’s a Hellcat,” he replied, patting his black dashboard.
“My car is a Hellcat, a Dodge Challenger.”
“Whatever,” she shrugged. “Let’s exchange insurance information to be on the safe side. I’ll take a good look at my car once I have it in the garage.” Her voice was warm and husky, exactly as he remembered it. She was also being surprisingly good natured about the whole incident, but that was likely because she hadn’t recognized him yet.
“Why are you dressed like a reindeer?” The words burst out before he could stop them.
She smiled, perching the now hopelessly smeared glasses on her nose. “Oh, for work.”
“But you’re dressed as a reindeer, Stella. What sort of work do you do that involves being dressed as a reindeer?”
It was at that exact moment when he said her name that the green eyes narrowed in recognition. “You!”
“Guilty as charged,” Erik smiled the charming, half smile that had once made him a candidate for People magazine’s Sexiest Men of 2016 before his life had taken a one-eighty degree turn, and all of his dreams and hopes for the future had ended or at least changed course.
Ominously, her hands went immediately to her hips. “Erik Engen, what are you doing back in Noelle?” Those memorable eyes narrowed at him. He’d dreamed of them more times than he liked to remember or admit in the years since he’d last seen this woman. Stella pronounced the name of the town, Noelle, the way all the natives did, in one syllable, with a long o.
“I’m here for the Nutcracker Festival. I’m amazed that it took you that long to recognize me.”
“My one contact was bothering me, so I went with glasses today. It’s an old prescription. You’re here for the Nutcracker Festival? Is your father all right? He generally comes back to be the Grand Marshal each year.”
“Not this year. This year, I’m serving as Grand Marshal. Dad took my mom on a surprise anniversary cruise.”
“Your sister could have been Grand Marshal. Freya lives right in town.” Stella pointed out suspiciously. Erik imagined that many of the native Noellians would be suspicious of him.
“Freya’s nine months pregnant and due any day. I was the only family member who was available and guaranteed to be physically able. Are you that unhappy to see me?”
She snorted softly. “What you do or where you are, Erik Engen, no longer has any impact on me. You made sure of that a decade ago. I moved on.”
He repressed the feeling of disappointment that rose in him. Stella Larsen still hadn’t forgiven him for how he’d treated her when they’d both left Noelle so long ago. She hated him, that much was clear, but he found himself wanting to continue this interaction. It had a spice to it that he found engaging. Like the love-struck seventeen-year-old boy he’d once been, he couldn’t get enough of Stella.
“I know where to find you if I find any damage to my car, Erik. You’re staying at the Lingonberry Lodge, right?”
He nodded. “Yes, and I’ll be there through the holidays.”
“You realize that this Devil beast is completely inappropriate for Noelle in December. I’ll bet it’s rear wheel drive.”
“It’s a Hellcat. Are you suggesting your Prius is the right car for these conditions?” Erik scoffed.
“It’s fuel efficient and cute,” Stella defended. “I think we’re done here. I’ll be in touch if I need to be. Otherwise, I’m sure we’ll both be quite content never speaking to each other again.”
As she turned to go back to her car, Erik began to roll up his window. He paused, watching her. “Stella,” he called out, “you never answered my question. Why are you dressed as a reindeer?” His gaze swept up and down her willowy, reindeer pajama-clad figure.
“I’m the art teacher at Leif Erickson Elementary School,” she explained. “We’re having our family holiday sing-along today, so the entire specialist team dressed as Santa’s reindeer. Unfortunately, it’s my luck that I’m dressed like this when I ran into the boy who once broke my heart,” she muttered, holding her hands wide. Again, she spun away from him.
The boy who once broke my heart—that sounded promising to Erik. “Technically, I did run into you. Why is that your luck?” He called after her, wanting to extend the conversation. A decade since he’d broken up with her, Stella remained vivid and electric with energy in a way that most of the other women he’d encountered were not. Why was she teaching art in Noelle? Last he’d heard of Stella, she was working as a professional muralist all over the globe. What had brought her back to the town they’d both grown up in and then been in a rush to leave?
She pivoted in the snow to glare back at him. “I don’t consider it good luck,” she explained, “to have you literally run into me in your devil car on the day that I’m ridiculously dressed up as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.”
Despite his fatigue and his anxiety about what he was facing in the upcoming days, Erik laughed out loud. Stella had always challenged him. If he could see her again, maybe being back in Noelle wouldn’t be as bad as he’d anticipated.
Stella got back into her lime-colored car under the streetlight that was garland wrapped and topped with an enormous candy cane. Erik gripped the soft, heated leather of his steering wheel tightly. He hadn’t wanted to return to Noelle this holiday season. Of course, he fully intended to take care of the business that had brought him back, the Nutcracker Factory that was the base of Engen Ornaments, the Engen family’s multinational corporation. He’d even make an appearance at the Lingonberry Lodge with the rest of the family on Christmas Eve, but then he’d be on his way. Still, a few weeks would be the longest he’d been back in Noelle for years.
Back when he’d been playing professional hockey, he’d even missed a couple of holidays. In the years since he’d retired from hockey and had been working for Engen Ornaments, he’d spent no more than a day or two in town on any given holiday. Erik’s role at the company had always involved a great deal of worldwide travel, and this was just as he liked it. To be honest, he preferred to stay away from Noelle and the Nutcracker Factory that had been his grandfather’s creation and was the bedrock of the family business. It’s not that his memories of Noelle were bad, but they were tender. First, his grandfather had died, and then he’d broken up with the girl of his dreams, Stella Larson, to pursue his dream of playing professional hockey.
Erik repressed a slight feeling of unease. He’d returned to Noelle for less than pure reasons. Oliver and Meg Engen were on an anniversary cruise. That was the truth, but the board of Engen Ornaments had sent Erik to evaluate the future of the fifty-year-old nutcracker factory that Ole Engen had founded in Noelle and that still employed a good number of the residents of the town. The Engen Nutcracker Factory was the main business in town and deeply connected to the town’s identity. Every year, the Nutcracker Festival attracted many tourists in the final days leading up to Christmas that culminated in the Nutcracker Ball on December twenty-third. During the Festival, the citizens of Noelle participated in all sorts of winter activities including snowmobile races, pond hockey, ski jumping, Christmas craft fairs, and ice sculpture carving contests. Fittingly, the sign on the highway coming into town bore the legend, “Noelle, Wisconsin, home of Engen Nutcrackers.”
Would that remain the case after his work here was done? Erik pondered. With a heavy sigh and a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, he eased his car back into the flow of traffic which was predictably slow but steady for a morning commute in the driving snow. As he cruised along, he noted Hans Christian Anderson Street was decked out with the usual Christmas paraphernalia. Noelle was one of those typical Wisconsin small towns with brick storefronts at a variety of heights lining the two-lane main thoroughfare. Black, antique looking streetlamps glowed softly on both sides of the street. The entire town was decorated with an overwhelming abundance of holiday cheer. “Like Christmas exploded,” Erik muttered under his breath, shaking his head.
He proceeded down the street, resisting the automatic urge to take the right turn onto Linnaeus Street. That turn led to the hockey rink and was one that he had made countless times throughout his childhood and teenaged years. Still, his eyes went to the white aluminum building, the Noelle Municipal Hockey Rink, where the high school hockey team, the Noelle Chill, practiced and played their games. Glimpsing a large, new addition on one side of the rink, Erik craned his neck to peer at it. He recalled Freya had mentioned there was now a girl’s hockey team in town too, the Force, that practiced at the rink. So, it made sense that they’d added a second rink to the facility. During his brief visits to Noelle in the past few years, he had thought that the northern Wisconsin city seemed relatively unchanged. Now, observing his hometown with a more critical eye, he could see real changes. Most downtown storefronts were filled. There were two new hotels right where you turned off the highway, and he’d seen several new restaurants as well. Apparently, Noelle was growing.
Erik made a gradual right turn and pulled up the pine tree lined driveway to the craftsman-style home his grandfather had built and lived in named Lingonberry Lodge. Ole Engen had wanted his dream home in the heart of Noelle, right by Muir Park, the several acre park in the middle of the town with its abundant nature and cross-country ski trails. He’d bought up a big chunk of land and built his dream house there, overlooking Noelle Creek. Erik had spent a lot of his childhood in the enormous but whimsical house.
The wood carvings that Ole had loved and excelled at creating filled Lingonberry Lodge. He had immigrated from Norway as a young man, and the Lodge reflected his old-world tastes but with modern amenities. At more than four thousand square feet and with eight bedrooms, it was too much house for any one family. Erik’s sister Freya had converted it into a high-end cross-country ski lodge. She and Benji, her husband, had built their own home directly behind it.