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“Em, please tell me this is a joke.”
Emily looked over the potted poinsettia in the middle of the café table she was sharing with her best friend, Janet, and shook her head. “Since I can’t cancel Christmas, I’m going somewhere I can pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“I’m sorry, and why do we want to cancel Christmas again?”
Emily sighed. “Because I’m cursed.”
“Riiight.” Janet leaned in and leveled a concerned look across the table. “Em, you’re my best friend and I love you. Which is why I feel compelled to tell you this is crazy. I mean, truly certifiable. There are no such things as curses. Especially not at Christmas.”
“Oh really?” Emily tilted her head. “Then what do you call it when your last three boyfriends break up with you during the holidays?”
Janet wrinkled her nose and shrugged weakly. “Lousy luck?”
“A curse,” Emily said firmly, snatching the pamphlet from Janet’s hand and giving it an authoritative snap. “It says it right here: Total peace and quiet—not even phones! It’s perfect!”
“Perfect if you want to be the first victim in a slasher movie,” Janet said.
“I was kind of hoping you were kidding.”
“Jan, Phillip said we had to talk when he got back from Phoenix—what am I supposed to think?”
“Oh, I don’t know—maybe that he wants to talk about you guys moving in together?”
Emily shook her head. “It wasn’t that kind of ‘we have to talk’ tone. It was more the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ tone. And believe me—I’ve heard the latter enough now to know the difference.”
“And you think avoiding his calls and checking in to the Bates Motel for the holiday is the way to avoid having this talk?”
“It’s hardly the Bates Motel. And yes—if I don’t answer my phone until after Christmas, I’m in the clear.”
Janet sighed. “If you want to avoid Christmas, why not go spend it with Helen and your brother-in-law? That man makes Scrooge look like Frosty the Snowman.”
“I considered it,” Emily said sheepishly.
Janet blinked at her. “Wow, you really have lost your mind.”
“Told you.” Emily picked up her toasted gingerbread cappuccino, Bay Beans’ most popular holiday flavor, and sighed into the drink’s silky foam head, the nutty smell of almond filling her nose as she sipped. She knew how ridiculous this sounded. Here she was, a smart, successful, thirty-year-old economist, renting a bare bones cabin in the middle of the mountains, to spend Christmas in a place where she could pretend it wasn’t Christmas—simply because she believed the universe had forever decided to deliver her heart coal instead of holiday gold, and this year she was determined to foil its plan.
But was it so wrong of her to want to be married? Just because the institution hadn’t worked for her parents, it didn’t mean Emily didn’t long for a chance to try her hand at it. For as long as she could remember, she’d wanted to the whole package—a loving husband, a tidy house, and, of course, kids. Lots and lots of kids. And she’d come close—painfully close—so many times now. Surely this time had to be hers?
Janet picked up her peppermint cupcake and bit into the edge.
“How is that one?” Emily asked.
“Not bad, but I still say your cupcakes are better.”
Emily appreciated her best friend’s kindness but she knew her cupcakes were no match for the real deal. Compared to a professionally-trained baker, what did Emily know about cupcakes other than what she liked to bake at two in the morning when she couldn’t get to sleep after a stressful day?
“Ever consider putting some kind of “marry me” potion in a cupcake and getting Phillip to eat it?” Janet asked, wiping frosting off her thumb. “You know, like that creepy queen who gave Cinderella the poisoned peach?”
“That was Snow White—and it was an apple,” Emily said, stealing a dollop of cinnamon buttercream off her friend’s cupcake and licking her finger clean.
“I never could keep those dang princesses straight,” Janet said, waving her hand. “Speaking of cupcakes…” Janet gave Emily a mischievous grin. “Did you see the old deli is up for rent again? It would make a great storefront for a cupcake shop. Just saying.”
Emily wouldn’t deny she hadn’t fostered the same fantasy once or twice herself when she’d driven by the empty store on Main Street, especially after a tough day with her clients, but the only thing crazier than trying to hide out from Christmas to keep her boyfriend from breaking up with her, was leaving a lucrative career in the financial industry to bake cupcakes.
“You’d make a killing, Em. Think of it as your duty. Magnolia Bay needs your cupcakes.”
“Phillip would love that,” Emily said, rolling her eyes. “I actually joked about giving it all up to open a bakery a few weeks ago and he looked at me like I’d lost my mind.”
“You mean the way I’ve been looking at you for the past ten minutes since you told me about ‘Operation Creepy Cabin’?”
Emily gave in to a helpless smile. “Something very similar, yes.”
“Speaking of Phillip,” Janet said, “what happens if your boyfriend wants to—God forbid—call to wish you a Merry Christmas from the road?”
“I’ll let it go to voicemail and not check the messages until the day after Christmas. See?” She held up her phone. “I’ve already started. Four new messages and I have absolutely no idea who they’re from.”
“That’s insane. What if your mom’s trying to call?”
“From Clark’s yacht in the Caribbean?”
“Good point. But what if it’s a real emergency?”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Emily said. “Besides, you’re my best friend and I know you’re okay, so if it’s not you calling, and it’s not my mom, then I think I’m safe ignoring my phone for two days.” Emily shot her friend a teasing smile. “It is Christmas, after all.”
“So someone keeps reminding me,” Janet said dryly. “And you’ve already secured a reservation for this cabin?”
“Yup. Just last week. Bag’s in the car. Got the GPS set, tank full—Honey’s and mine,” Emily added, raising her mug.
Janet nearly choked on her bite of cupcake. “You’re taking Honey Bee to the mountains?”
“Of course. What did you think I’d be driving?”
“I don’t know, maybe a rental. Something Jeep-like. Not all those roads are paved, you know.”
“It’s the mountains, Jan—not the Arctic. Besides,” Emily said. “Honey Bee’s never failed me.”
“Em, you hate the mountains.” Janet reminded her.
“Hate is a strong word.”
Janet gave Emily’s outfit a disparaging once-over. “Is that what you plan to wear up there?”
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
“You do realize flip-flops might not be the best choice in footwear?”
“I’m going from my car to the cabin—and not planning on doing a whole lot of moving around in between.”
“Except for when you’re running for your life from the knife-wielding escapee from the local insane asylum.”
“Will you stop?”
“You first.” Janet’s eyes remained narrowed with suspicion. “Crazy escapee possibility notwithstanding, I assume you’ve actually checked the weather forecast? The mountains do get snow and ice, you know.”
“The only forecast I care about is the one here when I get back—and I don’t need a weatherman to tell me that.”
Nat King Cole’s smooth voice faded away and the chimes of Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” rose in volume around them.
Janet scowled up at the speaker wedged in the corner of the ceiling. “Did they always play Christmas music this loud, or are we just getting older and grouchier?”
Emily smiled into her coffee. “If we’re getting older, I’m pretty sure we’d hear the music less.”
“Good point. Must be grouchier.”
Emily glanced around the coffee shop, reminded of how many years she and Janet had been meeting here, during Christmas and every season in between. Sharing stories of family drama and work angst, romances blooming and fading. Wasn’t it at this same table, almost a year ago, when Emily had first told Janet about the cute, new guy working in the firm above hers. His blond buzz cut, his twinkling blue eyes? Ten minutes into her first date with Phillip, she’d already tried to decide what kind of music he’d want at their wedding.
Of course, this was also the same table where she’d first told her best friend about Vic, and Lyle, and Turner—and where she’d had to confess the news that they’d all broken her heart—and all during Christmas.
No more disappointments. This year, she’d had enough.
If hiding out in the mountains was what it took to survive her Christmas Curse, she’d do it.
“I don’t know, Em,” said Janet. “This still makes me nervous. Maybe I should come with you. Just in case.”
“And miss your first Christmas with Darren’s family?”
Janet reached across the table and gave Emily’s hand a loving squeeze. “Who knows? Maybe this curse of yours is contagious.”
Green Springs, North Carolina
If it had been anyone else, Griff Boone would have let the call go to voicemail. After all, the Jeep was packed, heat turned down, supplies locked up, garage closed. He was practically out the door.
But Lindy Clark’s beloved golden retriever had been one of his very first patients when he’d graduated vet school and started with the clinic. Now almost fifteen, Sassy—short for Molasses—was finally showing her age, and Griff knew for Lindy to call him the day before Christmas Eve, things had to be dire. Coupled with the news of an impending ice storm forecasted to hit the area within the day—Griff knew the sixty-eight year-old proprietor of Cozy Cabins had to be unraveling. And knowing that was the only reason he’d bring himself back to this house—especially at this time of year.
Steering his Jeep down the driveway, the fist of dread punched at his ribs, harder with every dip in the gutted dirt.
Don’t let me go, Griff…Keep me with you…
He saw Lindy waiting for him on the porch, and forced himself to draw up a smile as he crossed the path to meet her, steeling himself for what was always the hardest part of his checkups of Sassy—having to go into the old house. Ten years after losing Maddie, and it was still as hard as it had been that dark and cold December night.
“You’re an angel, you know that, Doctor Boone? An angel! I’m going to start calling you Gabriel.” Lindy’s short, tight curls framed her round, cheery face the same way Griff suspected they had since she was a little girl. Only now, they were as silver as the fur around Sassy’s muzzle.
Griff grinned as he took the porch steps. “Griff is fine, Miss Lindy.”
“Saint Griff, then. I won’t settle for less.”
“Where’s the lady of the hour?”
“Sunning herself by the fire, where do you think?”
He took in a tight breath and followed Lindy through the front door, trying to keep his eyes focused on the hearth across the room and not letting nostalgia pull his gaze to other places—kitchens and window seats, bannisters and door knobs. For such a small house, it was a minefield of memories. And it didn’t help that Lindy hadn’t done a whole lot of changes to it when she’d bought the property eight years earlier after Maddie’s parents had sold it.
“Watch the boxes,” Lindy said, steering him around a stack of ornaments in the foyer. “I was just getting started on the decorations when the weather radio went off.”
“Hey there, girl.” Griff dropped down beside Sassy and gave her a gentle pat, not wanting to startle the sleeping dog.
“She hasn’t been eating, Griff. Not even my famous chicken a la king. I’m so worried.”
“How long?” he asked.
“Almost three days now.”
Damn. He tilted his head and gave Sassy a tender but firm look. Don’t you go out now, girl. I’ve already said goodbye to one great gal during Christmas.
He gave her a quick exam and discovered an angry wound rising up from the pumpkin-colored fur. “How long has she had this spot on her leg?”
“A few weeks now. She always gets hot spots this time of year. I try to keep her from bothering them but you know I can’t watch her around the clock.”
“What happened to that cone I gave you to use the last time?” he asked.
“It’s in the closet.”
Griff sighed. “Miss Lindy, it’s not going to do much good in there.”
Lindy gave him a sheepish look. “But she hates it.”
“All dogs do. But they hate infection even more.” He gave Sassy another tender pat and climbed to his feet. “I’ll check her temperature, but I’m betting she’s got a fever. Some antibiotics should clear up the infection in a few days. I brought some I can leave with you to give her.”
“Oh, you really are an angel.”
He glanced around the room, careful not to let his eyes land on any one spot for too long. “No takers for cabins this year?”
Lindy sighed. “Believe it or not, I had one reservation, bless her heart—but I called to tell her not to come on account of the storm. Left her two messages, just in case. Glad I did. Sass isn’t really up for company this year. Think she was a single lady from the coast. Probably some old prune like me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because what young person in their right mind spends Christmas alone?”
Griff saw the paling of regret drain Lindy’s rosy cheeks seconds after she said it, her eyes darting to meet his. “I didn’t mean…”
“It’s okay. I’m not sure my mind’s right either.”
“Your mind’s one of the rightest ones I know,” she said, patting his arm.
Her eyes drifted to the window, his Jeep in full view. He watched Lindy scan the vehicle, no doubt taking inventory of the camping equipment and gear latched to the roof rack. She was one of the few people in Green Springs who knew why he took to the road every year at this time.
“Where are you headed?” she asked gently.
“Not sure. Just figured I’d keep driving south until it got warm enough to pull over and pitch a tent.”
“You think they’re right about this ice storm?”
“I’m not taking any chances,” Griff said. “You shouldn’t either.”
“I know,” Lindy said. “I’d hoped to get me and Sass down to my sister’s for the holiday. Steer clear of all this mess, but then Sass took a turn and I don’t dare move her.”
Griff frowned, a knot of concern twisting in his gut. He didn’t like thinking of Lindy here alone with bad weather coming. Ice on the trees meant ice on the branches, and ice on the branches meant branches coming down on power lines. If the temperatures stayed as low as they were predicting, a loss of power could be devastating to an old woman and her equally old dog.
“You have enough wood?” he asked firmly.
“Yes, Doctor. And plenty of batteries and flashlights and canned food.” She cast him a weary look, her eyes fluttering. “This isn’t my first rodeo, you know.”
He grinned, but the fist of worry in his stomach wasn’t loosening. Already ominous gray clouds were building, and the chill in the air was heavier now.
Lindy glanced past him toward the tress and sighed. “It’s Jasper I’m worried about. He still can’t walk on that leg.”
Her old friend who lived a few miles further up the mountain; Griff’s nerves frayed further. “You want me to go look in on him?”
“You know how that old goat is. He won’t let anyone in that place except me.” She squinted up at him. “I could be there and back in a half hour. I just need someone to stay with Sassy. She gets so nervous when I leave her alone now.”
Griff considered the possibility. He knew Lindy was right on both counts about her old neighbor, Jasper Cummings. Jasper wasn’t in any kind of shape to get through an ice storm without preparations—and, with no family left on the mountain, the only person he’d listen to was Lindy.
Griff glanced out at the sky, torn. If this storm was headed their way, he needed to make tracks soon to stay ahead of it. He supposed he still had time.
Lindy’s sweet smile beamed up at him.
If it had been anyone else, anyone…
“Go on,” he said. “Me and Sass’ll hold down the fort. And tell Jasper Happy New Year for me.”
End of Excerpt