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It had to be a pre-Christmas miracle. That’s the only thing that could explain how Heidi Forrester was able to keep a cool, composed expression until she was a full two blocks away from the luxurious boutique condo building. Not even the leaden skies hovering over downtown Chicago or the frigid wind tunneling between the high-rises could dampen her mood. Because right after ringing in the New Year, she was going to be signing for her very own condo in the heart of the city, a unit with Italian-inspired floors, granite countertops and a bathroom so beautiful she might never want to leave it.
Before she gave in to the impulse to perform a giddy dance in the middle of the sidewalk, risking breaking an ankle in her heels, she ducked into a corner coffee shop for a celebratory hot chocolate.
“Hello, how can I help you today?” the petite redhead at the counter asked her.
“I’ll take the largest hot chocolate you have and a dozen of your honey apple pecan cookies.”
“We’ll have it for you at the end of the counter in a few minutes.”
When she had her purchases in hand, she hurried out the door and on down the street. While her fellow Chicagoans passed by seeming to visually curse the dreary weather, Heidi thought her smile might very well light up the city more than the sun would should it deign to make an appearance.
As she sipped her hot chocolate, she thought: This is the best day of my life. Not only was she going to have a gorgeous new home where she could host parties for her coterie of friends, but it had been made possible because she had just been named the Vice President of Marketing for Konnect, the hottest new social media network that was growing by leaps and bounds each month. Her boss, Russ Fairchild, was currently gracing the cover of more than one respected tech magazine.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she juggled the box of cookies so she could retrieve it.
Think of the devil.
“Where are you?” he asked before she could even say, “Hello.”
“On my way back to the office.”
“Where have you been?”
On my lunch break.
Maybe it was just going to take Russ a bit to stop treating her like an employee lower on the food chain than someone in her new position. Russ might be a genius, but he was also demanding. And she’d never complained—not audibly, anyway. She’d put in three years of long hours, extra projects, doing a host of things that were not part of her job description to get where she was right now. Russ was used to having her basically at his beck and call. It would dawn on him soon that she was closer to an equal now than an underling. Russ tended to move constantly—working, talking, doing—but occasionally he’d pause to take a breath and things he should have noticed finally had a chance to catch up to him. She just had to wait until the next pause.
“Meeting with my real estate agent.”
“Oh, you’re buying something?”
She rolled her eyes. She’d told him that a week ago so he wouldn’t schedule anything during lunch today, which he often did because, hey, who needed to eat, right?
“Yes, a gorgeous condo.”
“Oh.” That’s all he said before launching into the laundry list of things that needed her immediate attention.
She was still trying to keep it all straight in her head when she strode back into the headquarters of Konnect and took the elevator up to the fifteenth floor. Her VP position was so new that she had taken a few steps toward her old, windowless office before she remembered she had a beautiful office with an actual view now. She executed a quick turn and dropped the cookies off with Bree, her assistant.
“Can you take these to the kitchen for everyone?”
“Sure. How did it go?”
Heidi was already dialing the number to item one on her extensive to-do list as she gave Bree an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
That was pretty much how the rest of her week went—go, go, go. It was thrilling but also exhausting. But as she looked out her window early Friday evening, through the darkness to the building across the street, she saw they’d turned on the lights of their Christmas tree. The sight of all those twinkling white lights made her smile.
She loved Christmas, absolutely loved it. Most people whose birthday fell on the biggest holiday of the year hated that fact, feeling as if they were cheated out of a real birthday. But how could she hate the fact that the world decorated itself in bright, sparkly splendor just in time for her big day? She didn’t mind sharing her “Happy Birthday” tune with the verses of “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night.” And there were always so many festive things to do this time of year.
Speaking of, she was woefully late in organizing the annual holiday gathering of her circle of friends. Most of them were single like her, professionals who tended to stick around the city instead of heading off on pilgrimages to the old home place for the holidays.
She grabbed her cell and scrolled to Valerie’s name.
“Hey, girl. How did the condo hunting go today?” Valerie said when she picked up the call.
“Fabulous. We’re going to have some new digs for our get-togethers come January.”
“That’s awesome! I can’t wait to see it and help you decorate.”
“Ha! You are getting nowhere near my new home with your penchant for picking up every piece of experimental art at starving artist sales.”
“Mark my word. Some of those starving artists are going to be famous someday.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Oh, ye of little faith.”
Heidi laughed. “Speaking of get-togethers, we need to get hopping on our holiday festivities.”
Silence greeted her from Valerie’s end of the call.
“Val? You still there?”
“Did you not talk to Jonathon?”
“Not for a couple of weeks. It’s been crazy busy around here.”
Valerie sighed. “I’m going to kill that absent-minded little professor.”
Jonathon really was a cliché, a professor of philosophy so forgetful that they’d threatened to slap a “Hello, my name is…” sticker on his chest so he wouldn’t forget who he was. But he was adorable, sort of like a big-eyed puppy.
“What did he forget this time?”
“To tell you that we’re all going skiing in Colorado.”
Again, an uncomfortable pause from her friend.
“We didn’t think you’d have the time to come. I mean, you’re working some insanely long hours. And you never take more than a couple of days off during the holidays, despite the fact that your office clears out for two full weeks except for the poor souls in tech support.”
Valerie wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t true, and yet Heidi couldn’t deny a bit of a sting that nobody had mentioned the trip to her. Granted, whoever had put Jonathon in charge of talking to her had experienced a spectacular lapse in judgment.
“It’s okay. Send me the details and I’ll make some reservations. As much as I’ve been working, I deserve some time off. I mean, Russ is going to Saint Kitts, after all.”
“Crap. Heidi, I’m sorry, but the resort is completely booked already. We barely were able to get in we made the decision so late. But I can cancel and stay here with you.”
“Don’t be silly. I will not deprive my best friend of her opportunity for snowy snuggles with a gorgeous ski instructor. Just see if he has a hot friend who wants to relocate to Chicago.”
“You got it, mon ami.”
When she hung up with Valerie, Heidi spun away from the view of the Christmas tree to find the offices of Konnect had emptied out for the evening. Not that it was unusual to find herself the last person at her desk, but for some reason it felt extra empty tonight.
She grabbed her purse and headed toward the elevator, dialing her mother’s number as she went.
“Hey, sweetheart,” her mom said. “It’s so nice to hear from you. Tell me all about your new job.”
Heidi spent her walk to the train sharing the latest details of her life and hearing about her mother’s recent trip to Indonesia. Her mom was the epitome of a world traveler, always headed to some new spot on the globe in search of overlooked artisans whose work she could bring to a wider audience.
“So, I was wondering if we might spend Christmas together this year. The gang is heading to the slopes of Vail, so I’m rocking a solo holiday.”
“Oh, sweetie, I wish I’d known sooner. I’m planning to go up to Toronto to see your aunt. I’d invite you up, too, but Diane and I will be headed to Nunavut. Interested?”
“In a place that makes Chicago look balmy? I think I’ll pass. But you all have a good time. We’ll catch up after you get back. Give Diane a kiss from me, and don’t get eaten by a polar bear.”
By the time she finished talking with her mom, she’d reached her stop. She couldn’t wait until she moved so she could walk to and from work.
As she entered her apartment a short while later, she turned on the lights of her own three Christmas trees and sank onto the couch, kicking off her heels so her feet could breathe a sigh of relief. For a few minutes she didn’t move, simply stared at the tree in front of her until the tiny white lights blurred. Then she pulled out the Thai food she’d picked up on the way from the train station and slid her personal laptop onto the couch beside her and powered it up.
As she aimlessly scrolled through her various social media accounts, always with comparisons to Konnect in the back of her mind, she spotted an all-smiles photo posted by Phoebe, her college roommate. In it, Phoebe and her handsome boyfriend Justin were cheek to cheek while visiting the San Diego Zoo.
She opened a messenger window to Phoebe and typed, You and Justin look ridiculously cute in that photo you just posted.
The three little dots appeared, letting her know Phoebe was responding.
We do, don’t we?
So I take it things are going well between you two?
SO well. I think he’s the one.
Wow. I’m so busy, I’m pretty sure the one could be standing in front of me and I wouldn’t notice.
Trust me, you’d notice. It makes everything else in your life come to a screeching halt as the realization hits, and then the world jerks back into motion.
Sounds like I need to have Dramamine handy in case my one true love crosses my path.
They chatted about work, their families, life in their respective cities. When Phoebe asked about what the gang was going to be doing for their Christmas soiree this year, Heidi told her about the skiing trip and the missed communication.
I should just come see you in sunny SoCal. I could thaw out for a while.
I’m actually going home this year.
I thought your parents liked their warm Christmas breaks at your place.
They do, but I want Justin to get the full Merry, Montana, experience. Hey, you should come, too.
Because I LOVE being a third wheel to the Adorables.
Don’t be silly. I won’t spend ALL my time with Justin.
Now who’s being silly?
Seriously, for someone who loves Christmas as much as you do, I can’t believe I never got you to Yule Mountain while we were in school.
But the timing had never been right. She’d either taken the opportunities to visit one or both of her parents, was working, or one Christmas she’d been so sick with food poisoning she’d been convinced she was about to die. But the idea of visiting a town where it was evidently Christmas year-round had a definite appeal.
I’ll even get you a room at the Evergreen Inn.
Won’t it be booked up already?
My cousin owns it, so let me see what I can do. Say you’ll come.
Heidi thought that spending her holiday on a snowy, Christmas-themed mountain sounded way better than sitting in her apartment alone. And heaven knew she’d accumulated a lot of unused vacation days.
Awesome! You’re going to OD on Christmas!
There is no such thing.
End of Excerpt