A Christmas Like No Otter by Zoe Chant

Chapter 1

The piano playerquit less than an hour after Blaire Hobart started her job as Virtue's new choir director.

"I'll finish today," the old lady said, staring down her nose at Blaire. Mrs. Fenn was four inches shorter than Blaire, and sitting on a piano bench, so that was technically impossible, but Blaire sure felt like she was being looked-down-the-nose-at. Maybe it was how Mrs. Fenn wore her glasses on the end of her nose. Maybe it was just that she was seventy-five and had a lot of experience glaring at young people.

Whatever it was, Blaire felt fairly confident the new job was not going to work out.

She'd been so excited for it, too. Virtue, New York, didn't need a full-time choir director, of course, but Blaire taught music classes, too. Voice, piano, guitar, and flute, plus enough violin to get kids started, and enough brass to get by. Virtue was a big enough town to support one or two music teachers like her, and since they'd hired an outsider instead of somebody from town to direct the choir, she thought she'd chosen a solid place to start a career from.

But apparently she was the Wrong Sort, at least according to the fierce look in Mrs. Fenn's eyes. The old lady had seemed like the Mrs. Claus type when Blaire first met her, forty whole minutes ago. She was round and white-haired and had red shining cheeks and, yes, glasses balanced on the end of her nose so she could properly terrify the children, but…

…but Blaire had imagined they'd be on the same side, not at odds as soon as they met.

"I'm sorry," Blaire whispered. The kids were currently involved in an enthusiastic, if not tuneful, rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a song which Blaire did not intend to keep in the choir concert if she could possibly help it. She'd mentioned as much, and that's when everything had gone wrong. Maybe it was Mrs. Fenn's favorite song. Maybe Blaire had mortally offended the old piano player by wanting to drop it. "Is there anything I can do to change your mind?"

"No." The word was like a concrete block dropped from on high. It landed between Blaire and Mrs. Fenn like a wall. Like a whole city block. There was no negotiating with that no.

Blaire whispered, "I'm so sorry," again, and went to interrupt the children so she could start teaching them a new song.

And that was the first day on the job.

Realistically,Blaire expected to have a text or email message the next day, asking her to come in to see the town council who'd hired her. She checked her phone eight times in the first twenty minutes after she got up, waiting for the news that she no longer had a job and that her imagined long tenure in Virtue was over in less than twenty-four hours.

For some bewildering reason, the text didn't arrive. Blaire showered, checked the phone, got dressed, checked the phone, ate breakfast, checked the phone, and finally decided she might as well go out and walk around Virtue at Christmastime while she waited for the shoe to drop.

The town was even prettier than its long-outdated website suggested. A heavy blanket of fresh snow quieted the streets and stretched unmarred over the biggest town square she'd ever seen. Blaire had rented a room at a B&B that overlooked the square, figuring a few weeks there would give her time to decide where she wanted to live in Virtue. She hadn't thought she'd probably get fired inside of a day then, though.

Looking out at the soft snow and wide open space, she thought maybe she would have wanted to live exactly where she was right now, so she could watch everything that happened in town. The unbroken snow was so tempting she could hardly believe there weren't little kids out there already, making snow angels and having snowball fights. If they didn't hurry up and get out there, she was going to have to do it herself!

A tremendous Christmas tree had been set up in middle of the square's gazebo, which had clearly been built in part to support a tree. As the morning brightened, people began setting up little wooden shops being set up around the edges of the square, like a holiday bazaar was in the making. Yeah, Blaire thought, she would have liked it here. Moodily, she went down to breakfast and nodded at another guest, who was in his mid-40s, handsome, and uninterested in conversation. The breakfast was good, and Blaire found a flyer for a small massage therapy clinic just across the square. She booked an appointment and headed over, figuring she might at least be able to enjoy that before she got fired.

She emerged an hour later with muscles like melted butter and a much better attitude. She hadn't done anything wrong! If old Mrs. Fenn got her fired because they disagreed on a Christmas song, then Blaire didn't belong in Virtue anyway!

Weirdly, though, there was still no message from the town council. Blaire went into a cafe just a few doors down from the massage clinic and had an unbelievably good sandwich as she listened to the townsfolk planning their holidays.

By four o'clock, there was still no message from the council, so Blaire squared her shoulders and went to choir practice. She certainly wasn't going to assume her way out of a job. If they wanted to fire her, they were going to have to do the dirty work themselves.

Flushed with a combination of cold and anger, Blaire stalked into the rehearsal hall—also the town's largest church, where the acoustics were absolutely amazing—and lost all steam as the sounds of a piano being played spilled down the aisle toward her.

The kids hadn't arrived yet, so the pianist wasn't playing didactic holiday songs, but rather a beautiful and fluid performance of Für Elise from off to one side of the church, where the piano was half-hidden from sight even to those in the front pews. Blaire couldn't see the pianist, but unless they'd magically decided to replace the piano player instead of Blaire herself, she assumed it was probably Mrs. Fenn again, and that whatever she'd done wrong yesterday was now forgotten or forgiven.

Blaire slowed, her eyes drifting shut as she stepped to the side, feeling, rather than looking, for a pew to sit in. She sank into one of the, swaying with the music, playing it in her mind as the pianist reached the deeper notes halfway through, then went into the trill of music that always surprised her, no matter how often she heard it.

From Für Elise the pianist went directly into Ode to Joy, which made Blaire smile. Mrs. Fenn had played that the afternoon before, increasing the tempo until the kids were leaping around with excitement and laughter. Blaire would offer another apology for whatever she'd said or done the day before, and hopefully all would be well. She stood as the music came to an end, sighing contentedly, and walked forward, calling, "That was beautiful."

The piano bench scraped as the pianist stood up, clearly startled. "Oh. I didn't know anyone had come in."

That was definitely not Mrs. Fenn's voice, not unless she'd become a baritone overnight. Blaire said, "Oh!" too, coming forward. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt a private session. I'm here for choir practice."

"Right, me too." The pianist emerged from the shadows, smiling at first and then all at once looking completely mortified. "I'm Abraham. Abe. Abe Fenn. My aunt, my great-aunt that is, but we call her Aunt Ruby, she used to be the choir pianist but she decided the church was too cold last night and she called me to come fill in for her. I got here early so I decided to warm up a bit."

Abraham Fenn sounded like every word he spoke was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to him. He looked wretched with apology, as if he somehow had done wrong by playing piano in the church. His cheeks were pink with embarrassment. His gaze was cast down. He practically dug a toe into the church's old oak floors, as if he might escape that way.

His dark blond hair fell over his forehead in the most appealing waves as he did all that embarrassed squirming. His cheekbones were razor-sharp beneath their blush. Blaire hadn't even caught a glimpse of his eye color, but she was suddenly and dizzily certain that whatever shade they were, it was perfect. She wished he hadn't stopped smiling, because his smile had been bright and beautiful and inviting.

He had magnificently broad shoulders, and long fingers that currently wrapped around one another nervously. His legs were long, too, and she mumbled, "Long fingers, long legs, long…pants…" to herself.

Abe's gaze jerked up to hers and Blaire remembered the church's amazing acoustics too late. Oh, God, she hoped he hadn't heard that. Louder—much too loudly, in fact, given the acoustics—she said, "Oh no that's fine! Hi, Abe! I'm Blaire Hobart! I didn't know your aunt was so cold last night. I thought I'd said or done something to offend her. Oh, I'm so glad I didn't." She rushed forward to offer him her hand.

He took it as if he didn't know what else to do, but like it was the second-worst thing that had happened to him today. The first had obviously been having to talk to her at all.

That wasn't fair. He was easily the most gorgeous man Blaire had ever met, the kind of guy she dreamed of meeting. The kind of guy she dreamed of falling in love with her at first sight. Instead, he was clearly appalled at having to talk to her at all. He said, "Hi, Blaire, it's nice to meet you," and took his hand from hers as quickly as polite society would allow, an expression of dismay clearly crossing his face.

Blaire, trying to rally, said, "It's nice to meet you, too," and then the church doors opened and roughly a million shrieking children poured down the aisles.