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My fingers whip across the keyboard, then I tap the enter key as if I’ve just won a Nobel Prize.
I’m so good at my job that it sometimes scares me.
“Done,” I say, leaning back and crossing my arms as I admire my work.
The feeling of magic and accomplishment I get when I recover someone’s hard drive is addicting. Anything to do with computers, really. I once recovered the files off a USB that had been lost during a snowstorm and was found months later buried in the mud. I wouldn’t say I’m the best, but I’m basically the best.
“No way.” Ashlyn, the receptionist at Praisen Accounting, turns her computer screen to face her. Her eyes widen and a smile sneaks onto her face. Then she gives me a slow clap.
“You are goooood.”
I chuckle and start to pack my bag. I didn’t bring much with me. I’ve become so familiar with the blue screen of death phone calls that the steps to fix this computer issue are basically engraved in my brain.
“Thank you,” I say, keeping my eyes on my bag. Compliments feel awkward for something I’m being paid to do.
“I can’t believe I waited to call you.” She leans back with her arms crossed. “As soon as my computer went blue, I thought I lost everything. I cried, Tuck. I cried. All I could think was, how do I tell my boss that I didn’t back anything up last night and now it’s all gone?”
“It was nothing. Just a few clicks here and there, and voila, you can get back to work. Although with the holidays coming up, it might not be a bad idea to suggest to your boss that you need a new computer.”
She leans forward, pulling up her email.
“Oh, you can bet your butt I’m going to ask for a new one. I do not want to relive that again. I’m emailing him right now.”
“Smart plan. Call me as soon as possible next time it happens. Maybe I can save you a panic attack or two or even walk you through it over the phone.” I shrug on my fleece-lined coat and sling my bag on to my shoulder as I stand. A howl outside steals my attention. It’s been snowing all morning, and the wind has picked up, creating the illusion of a blizzard outside.
Not exactly what I’d like to see on a day I need to travel via air, but it is December in New York, so it wasn’t like I was expecting sunshine and warmth.
“It’s really coming down out there,” Ashlyn says. “Do you want to wait here till it calms down?” Her flirtatious tone is hard to miss.
I shift my gaze from the window to the brunette in front of me, who is batting her lashes and watching me intently. Since Evergreen Technologies, or EG Tech as I call it, the company I own, is contracted with her employer, I handle all their tech needs and see her about once a week. She’s my type. She’s kind, funny, smart, and is always in a good mood. She’s also tall, which to my six-foot-one height is nice. She’s slender, so it’s clear she takes care of herself.
I should be interested in her, but I’m not.
My company is thriving. It started out as just me with a couple of freelance accounts here and there, but now I have more than three dozen companies I’m contracted for, and I have multiple employees who work throughout the state. Mixing work with pleasure isn’t something I care to do. Not after I spent years working endless hours as a chef until I could afford to start my own company. The idea of ruining my reputation over a failed relationship and being forced to work for someone else again doesn’t appeal to me.
“I’m sorry, Ashlyn.” I glance at my watch. “I have a plane to catch.”
“In this weather?”
I nod. “My brother is getting married in a few weeks, and I’m heading to Wyoming to spend time with the family beforehand.”
“Oh, that’s sweet and a long trip.”
Again, I nod. “Christmas is usually the only time I go back, so I try to make it worth it.”
Visiting my hometown, Melody, Wyoming, is … complicated. I wouldn’t say I avoid going back, but unless it’s something important, I try to go as little as possible. I fly my mother to New York a few times a year, and my younger brothers have both made a trip this last year, so I see my family enough that I don’t feel guilty for not visiting more often.
“Merry Christmas, Ashlyn,” I say and tug on my hat.
“Merry Christmas, Tuck.”
Since it’s only a two-story building, I take the stairs. As soon as I’m on the first floor, I zip my coat up as high as it goes and step into the wind. I wave a cab down, instructing him to take me to my apartment.
The roads cause the route to take longer than normal, but luckily my bag is packed and all I need to do is one last check of the place to make sure things are unplugged, since I won’t be back till after the new year.
I scribble a thank-you note on my fridge notepad for the neighbor’s daughter, who will check on my place. She’s eleven, and I pay her twenty bucks a day to basically just walk around each room. Twenty dollars. The last two years I paid her only ten bucks a day during my trips, but this season, she raised her prices.
I chuckle to myself as I lock the front door. She’s going to do well in this world.
My Uber is waiting outside for me when I get to the bottom floor of the fifteen-story apartment building, and I hop in, physically ready to spend the next three weeks in Wyoming.
Mentally, I’m terrified that this is the trip my family will succeed in convincing me to move back. Hence, why returning to my hometown is complicated. It’s not even that they come right out and beg me. They support my life here, I know they do, but when I’m home, I realize how much I miss them, and it messes with my mind. Especially now that my brothers are both settling down and are ready to start families, it pains me to think that I’m so far away and won’t be there for all those happy memories. But I’m following my dream. One of the last conversations I had with my father plays on repeat in my mind every single time I go home.
“I’m so proud of you for graduating at the top of your class, Tuck. I knew sending you to that school would be an opportunity you’ll never forget.”
“It was the best, Dad. I wish you could have come to see me graduate.”
“Me too, son. Me too, but even though I wasn’t able to make it, I know you’ll do great things with a degree in technology. Promise me you’ll never give up on your dreams. No matter what changes come your way and no matter where life takes you, you’ll do everything you want in life and you won’t give up till you get them.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
He never asked me what my dreams were, but I knew standing there next to his hospital bed that my goal was to move to New York and get hired with some of the biggest companies in the world. I’d become so successful that everything my father sacrificed for my education would be worth it. He gave up some of his dreams for me to reach mine, so giving up on those dreams, even now, isn’t an option.
My phone won’t stop buzzing.
I pick it up off the table and silence it.
Normally, muting notifications is the first thing I do each morning, but I’ve been a little more forgetful than usual as the holidays approach, and I don’t remember until I’m in a quiet place trying to concentrate.
Not that I was concentrating on anything particular. I was more focused on the song playing in the background of the bakery.
Fa la la la la la la la. How many la’s are actually supposed to be in that verse? I should put up a guessing box on my stories, and then I should—
“Elle, are you listening?”
“What?” I ask all too quickly, clearly giving away the answer to Lucy’s question. Since she’s my best friend, she probably knew the answer before the words left her mouth, but she just had to snap my attention.
“Did you get the pictures Arthur sent you of the tree lighting from Saturday night?” Lucy asks.
I nod quickly and open my laptop. “I did. I was actually going to ask you if you captured more pictures with families. I don’t want to load the square’s social media feeds with just pictures of a tree.”
“I did. Let me just find that folder, and I will send them to you.”
“Great.” I smile big at Lucy, who is watching me from the other side of the table. “What else do you have for me?”
She pinches her lips together in a smile and looks at her checklist. The woman loves a checklist.
“That’s all I have for you, for now.”
“Okay.” I pull out my phone and open the Instagram app. “I want to livestream the new white velvet sugar cookies Mrs. Evergreen rolled out today. I think my followers will love them.”
Lucy nods slowly, but a quick glance over the top of my phone at my friend tells me that my best friend wants to say something, but she isn’t saying it. Her eyes give her away.
I lower my phone. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine.”
“Then how come I don’t believe you?”
A timer dings in the background, and my mouth instantly waters for whatever cookies Lucy’s soon-to-be mother-in-law pulls out of the oven. The white velvet sugar cookies were to die for, but whatever I can smell right now, I’m pretty sure I’d kill for.
“Are you going to tell me we should stop having our meetings at Mrs. Evergreen’s bakery because we spend more time snacking than we do working? Because if that’s it, then I agree, but also no, we aren’t changing it.”
Lucy smiles. “That was not what I was going to say.”
“Then spill the beans already.”
“Okay, I say this with love.”
“I think you are overworking yourself.”
I shake my head. “I’m really not.”
“You seem distracted today, and between your contracted jobs and your newish presence online, you might have too much going on.”
“I don’t. I promise. I just … last year I posted so much that I have all these new followers, and they love this small-town vibe I share with them, and Christmas, wow, do they eat that up. I’m thinking I can double my follower count by the new year.”
Or really, just convince the one person who has yet to follow me to finally follow me. To care and to want to see what’s happening in my life and be involved in it. This could be the year.
Increasing the count would be beneficial for not only me, but others too. My dream is to make enough financially with my online income streams that I can offer free marketing to the local businesses around town. Right now, only a select few get my services for free—the ones who started working with me when I was just starting out—but I’d love to change that.
I just need more. More of what? I’m not sure. My creativity filter is running low lately.
Between the holiday and Lucy’s wedding, I’m sure it’s just stress.
“Well, you’re amazing with social media and marketing, so if that’s your goal, I’m sure you’ll come up with something to make that happen. Also, if you still have that connection with Lush Leggings, I’d like a new pair of black matte joggers for Christmas. Maybe two if you feel extra generous.”
I laugh. “You got it.”
The brand deals I get with various companies are a nice perk of sharing most of my day-to-day life online.
“Okay, girls, try this one.” Mrs. Evergreen rushes over with a small plate of cookies. “I added cinnamon to the recipe.”
I grab a cookie and take a bite of the warm sweetness.
“Wow.” I shove the rest of the treat in my mouth. “This is sinful.”
She nods with pride. “I know it. It’s similar to the white velvet, but this one has chocolate chips and cinnamon.”
“I have to film this. Can I have another cookie?”
“Of course.” She offers me the plate just as Lucy takes two more.
“You have to share,” my best friend says before following Mrs. Evergreen into the bakery’s kitchen.
I grab my phone, ready to start a video. Livestreaming is okay, but mostly I prefer to record a video and then post it once I’ve actually left wherever I’m at. I’m not famous by any means, but people are crazy, and with more than three million followers, a few are bound to be crazier than I’d like.
Holding up the camera, I press the red circle to begin.
“Hey, everyone. I hope you’re all enjoying your Saturday afternoon. I’m just here working at Bake It, the best bakery here in Melody, and you guys, Mrs. Evergreen just brought me the best thing I’ve ever tasted.” I hold the cookies up and take a bite. “Oh my gosh, you have to come down here and try these. You will not be disappointed. I don’t know the name yet, but let’s call them She Added Cinnamon for now.” I take another bite and wave goodbye before ending the video.
As I munch on the last of this cookie, I wander around the shop to take pictures of the logo, the shelves with treats ready to buy, and of the premade Christmas gift baskets and boxes.
“Did you get everything you needed?” Lucy asks, stepping out of the kitchen.
“I think so. Even if it’s not new content, I love promoting our local stores. Do you think I’ve helped any of them?”
“I guarantee it. The visitor rate from neighboring towns has doubled over the last year at Melody Square Park. The surrounding businesses have to be flourishing from it.”
“Yeah.” I start to pack up my computer. “But that’s probably because my best friend and her fiancé owns one of the more gorgeous venues in the state and book months in advance for any event.”
“The venue isn’t why my future mother-in-law has had to hire two new employees just to fill the shipping orders, or why Sandy at the Front to Back Bookstore now has an online store because she had so many people calling her to order books, or why Petals Blue Boutique has items on backorder, or why—”
“I think I get it. Thanks, Lucy.”
This social influencer thing might not be working in the way I hoped it would for me, but it is for others, and that’s good enough for me.
“Oh, and thank you for posting about the square so much. I’m also pretty sure that the square has been booked for the last three months because you post about it at least four times a week.”
“I’m just trying to support my home. People need to know how amazing this place is.”
“See you girls later!” Mrs. Evergreen shouts from the back as Lucy as I reach the door.
“Are we meeting back here this evening for the first cake testing, or is she making the cakes at her house?” I ask Lucy. She’s getting married at the end of this month and has an endless checklist to complete before then. I’ve told her numerous times that she should have completed everything by now, but she assures me that small towns, even though Melody isn’t that small, can afford to wait until this close to the day.
I’m doubtful, but hey, it isn’t my day.
“Here at the bakery.”
“Perfect. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Lucy says, spinning with a sly grinch-like grin on her lips.
I brace myself for the worst. Something so bad I can’t even imagine what it could be.
“Tuck’s flight lands in about two hours.”
And just like that, my chest tightens as if I’ve just been karate kicked and can’t move.
The man who, a few Christmases ago, I thought I might actually get to know, but instead he squashed that dream in one afternoon.
I wouldn’t exactly call it a dream to get to know Tuck. But in high school he was so smart and calm, and he was friends with everyone and all the girls crushed on him. It intrigued me. What was so marvelous about this man that drew people to him? I had to find out.
Do you know what I found so interesting about him?
Nothing at all.
I’m clearly over it.
“Elle? Are you okay?” Lucy asks, the grin she wore just minutes ago now replaced with a dipped brow.
“I’m fine,” I say, and those two words sound like I choked on them.
“I’m fine,” I say again, this time with more control.
I repeat it one more time in my head to avoid a Ross Gellar moment, but even then, I’m not too sure I’m convinced.
End of Excerpt