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“Can you say that again?” Charlotte covered her ear with her hand and closed her eyes, as if that would somehow make it easier to hear her phone. Because what she’d heard—what she thought she’d heard—had to be wrong. It had to be.
“They’ve decided to close the imprint, to streamline the magazine into an editorial for one of our better selling publications.” Jason Mahaffey had been her boss for the last five years. He had the ability to put a positive spin on most anything. Right now, she could hear his struggle. “I know it’s not good news, Charlotte.”
Not good news? She blew out a long, steadying breath—her grip on her phone tightening slightly. “No. Definitely not.” A complete and total shock is more like it.
“But try not to let this ruin your holidays.” He paused. “How long has it been since you’ve spent time with family? Since you’ve been home?”
“A while.” She chewed the inside of her lip. Too long. But she wasn’t ready to be distracted yet. “I thought—I heard there was a merger in the works.” Eyes still shut, she mumbled an apology as someone bumped into her. She was, after all, standing on the sidewalk, in everyone’s way, smack-dab in front of Austin intercontinental airport, having a telephone conversation. Not exactly the place to come to a hard stop—or have an emotional meltdown. “That a merger—”
“That was wishful thinking.” He sighed. “This was more of a…takeover than a merger. The board had made up their mind before the meeting ever got started.”
Her eyes popped open, taking in the world around her. Families bustled past, festively wrapped packages poking out of their carry-on bags. Some wore Santa hats, others ugly Christmas sweaters—regardless of the sun shining down from the wide Texas sky. It might be Christmas, but that didn’t mean the temp was below sixty or that any fluffy white stuff was in her future. A white Christmas, in the Texas Hill Country, was a rarity. But it was magical, when it happened.
“You okay, Charlotte?” he asked.
“Of course.” With any luck, it sounded like she meant it. And really, she was. Surprised—fine, totally blown away and shocked—yes, but okay. At least she was home, and not in some far-flung place on the other side of the world. Here, she could regroup and… “This takeover? Do I want to know what this means for me? My job?” Which was basically code for Do I still have a job.
“I’m working on that. I am. Obviously, positions are being cut, but you know I believe in your work—” He kept talking, saying all the right things but without the confidence Jason Mahaffey was known for. He was the man who made things happen, took risks, fought for the underdog. And for the last five years, he’d put his heart and soul into his pet project. The Independent Adventurer was an eccentric travel magazine that showcased off-the-grid locations for the backpack-toting, no-frills-required, intrepid explorer type of traveler. The concept wasn’t exactly mainstream, but they had a devoted readership. At least, she’d thought they had a devoted readership. Apparently not.
“I’m meeting with the board of directors next week to go over staff—those that are essential, those that aren’t. You fall into the first category. I’ll do what I can to keep you on the payroll.” Jason’s forced tone wasn’t the least bit encouraging.
“I appreciate that.” She nodded, her gaze sweeping the line of vehicles along the curb. Her line of work didn’t include much driving, so Grammy had volunteered to pick her up. Her grandmother had been horrified when Charlotte had offered to use a driving service—immediately worrying over Charlotte being abducted, never to be seen or heard from again. Charlotte hadn’t pointed out that she spent a good portion of her job alone, in remote and relatively inaccessible parts of the world, but there was no point. Grammy had a penchant for melodrama that made even the most mundane scenarios colorful. But now, she was thankful her grandmother had put her foot down. Seeing her grandmother’s smile would help her feel better. So would her hugs. And her nonstop chatter. And, hopefully, a big plate of Christmas cookies. Grammy knew how to find the silver lining in any situation. Which is exactly what I need.
Sadly, there was no sign of Krauss’s Blooms Florist lilac-colored delivery van and no smiling, arms-spread-wide Grammy waiting. But…something did catch her eye. Rather—someone.
Macon? She blinked. Once. Twice. He was still there. No. No, no, no!
He waved, all nonchalant, leaning against the hood of his dark green pickup truck. For a split second, it was as if she’d stepped back in time. With his hat tipped back on his head, blue plaid flannel shirt rolled up to his elbows, faded jeans, and leather boots—he looked, as always, like the quintessential cowboy.
Right there. Looking…the way he did. She swallowed against the very large lump suddenly blocking her throat. The question was why? Why was he here? And where was Grammy, her lilac delivery van, reassuring hugs, and escape?
As it was, there was no avoiding Macon. Nope. He was looking at her. Smiling. Walking her way? It wasn’t like she could hide; he’d already seen her. Not that she would hide anyway—that would be ridiculous. He was just…him. And she was…an adult. A professional adult.
“I’ll call you as soon as I have more news,” Jason was saying. “You try to enjoy your visit with your grandmother.”
She nodded. Grammy would start worrying as soon as Charlotte told her. Which meant she couldn’t tell Grammy—couldn’t jeopardize Grammy’s long overdue vacation. Charlotte had promised to run Krauss’s Blooms for the ten days Grammy would be touring Europe and that promise would stand.
“Charlotte?” Jason Mahaffey asked.
Right. Phone call, Charlotte. He can’t see me. “Yes. I will,” she answered, attempting not to stare at Macon… Or fidget and shift from foot to foot. Or be super awkward and look everywhere but at him. Especially now that he was standing right in front of her. Staring down at her, way down.
She swallowed again but that lump didn’t budge.
When had he gotten so tall? A lock of dark hair fell forward onto his forehead and he smiled. That smile used to make her heart stop.
But that was a long time ago. A very long time ago.
“Hi.” He nodded, hands shoved in his pockets, gaze sweeping over her face.
“Hi,” she mumbled, her phone still pressed to her ear. Taller, bigger, less boy, way more man. Honestly, he was a giant. A big, tall, manly giant with an incredible smile. Still Macon—but totally different. “Hi.” As if that needed repeating.
“Charlotte?” Jason Mahaffey asked. “One more thing.”
Her boss. She was on the phone with her boss. That whole professional adult thing. Right. Ignoring Macon now. “One more thing?” A hard, knot in her throat. “This is good news, right? I’ve reached my quota for bad news.”
Macon’s brows drew together at her words.
“Don’t think about this as good or bad news,” Jason said. “Life is about viewpoints, you know that. Choices. Consider this a chance to review your options.”
“I understand.” She tore her gaze from Macon and stared at the toes of her brown leather boots. “There are no guarantees in life. Find the positives.”
“Exactly.” Jason cleared his throat. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to update your résumé, check out other possibilities. I have an inside contact at National Traveler—they’re going to be looking for a field journalist the beginning of the year. I could put your name forward, if you’d like. Think about it. But for now, enjoy your time off. I have other calls to make.” A final sigh.
He hung up before she said good-bye. Now she stood, phone still to her ear, staring at her toes, processing his final words. When your boss tells you to update your résumé, it can only mean one thing.
It was a shock. The whole conversation. So was being toe-to-toe with the boy she’d left behind. A boy who she’d last talked to, more like pleaded with, standing on the sidewalk in front of an airport nine Christmases ago… And not just any airport. This airport…
Nope. Not going there. She had enough to stress over without adding on ancient, and likely forgotten, history. Please, please let it be forgotten. Well, not all of it, but the end. Definitely the end.
“Everything okay?” Deeper. His voice was different. But familiar.
Not exactly. She nodded. But he didn’t need to know that. More importantly— “What are you doing here?” Which, considering the amount of irritation in her voice, wasn’t exactly the best conversation opener.
He heard it—there was no way to miss it—and tensed. “Edda Mae had a last-minute order.” He was reaching for her bag. “I had some errands to run, so I offered to pick you up. Save her the trip.”
“You did?” Meaning her grammy, Edda Mae, wasn’t coming. So, he was her ride? To Last Stand? A small town a good forty-five minutes away. That was if traffic cooperated. Could this day get more awkward? Still, it was kind of him to help out Grammy. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know.” He smiled, his features relaxing. “But, if you’ve got everything, we should head out.” He glanced at her wheeled suitcase.
“This is everything.”
“One?” A dark brow arched.
“When you live out of your suitcase, you learn what’s essential and what’s not.” She shrugged.
“Makes sense.” He nodded. “Then let’s hit the road. With any luck, we’ll miss rush hour.” He tugged her suitcase along behind him, heading for the large four-door truck parked along the curb.
“Is that Fern?” The little dog sat inside, ears cocked up, tail wagging a mile a minute. With its mismatched colored patches and shaggy fur, there was no mistaking Grammy’s canine companion. “Hiya, Fern. Good to see you, girl.”
The little dog cocked its head to one side and barked.
“Happy to see me, too?” She laughed.
“I brought her along. It keeps her out of Edda Mae’s hair for a bit.” Macon put her suitcase in the back seat, next to Fern. “Fern loves car rides, running back and forth and wearing herself out.”
“She’s always been a curious little thing. She and Grammy are two peas in a pod.” That’s the way Grammy put it. Charlotte couldn’t agree more.
His blue eyes bounced from her to the dog before he closed the rear door of the truck. Then he held the passenger door open for her. “Need a hand?”
“Nope.” She awkwardly climbed up and into the truck cab. It was a higher step than she’d anticipated. There was leg stretching, awkward leaning, and pulling before she managed to get herself up and in—tightly gripping the leather seat back. She wasn’t graceful, but she did it. “I’m good.”
Macon looked like he was trying not to laugh. “I can see that.” He shut the door and walked around the truck.
End of Excerpt