Holiday Hearts, Book 3
Release Date:

Feb 2, 2023

ISBN:

978-1-958686-24-9

More From Christi →

Escaping Valentine’s Day

by

Christi Barth

An Italian romance is on the menu, but is she ready to order?

Content creator Rory Hibbert knows Valentine’s Day is only fun for couples and chocolatiers. For singles like her, it’s a day of disappointment. And that’s why her new marketing agency client has arranged a tour of Italy crammed full of activities to distract from the holiday. This trip is a test for Rory—if it goes well, it will jump-start her new social media career.

There’s just one snag: the ex she never got over is also on staff.

Huck Cranshaw walked away from the love of his life for a huge opportunity on a cooking competition show. At least, that’s the excuse he gave Rory at the time—and he’s regretted it for five years. Cooking for tourists was supposed to be a stopgap between restaurant positions. Now it could be much, much more: a chance to fix the past.

But when an Italian prince catches sight of Rory, Huck’s not the only one vying for her heart this time. Can Cupid still steal Rory’s heart when the truth finally comes out?

 

Each book in the Holiday Hearts series is standalone:

*The Magic of Christmas
*The Christmas Project
*Escaping Valentine’s Day

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The kissing noises from the adjoining seat were…well, they were annoying. It was a week before Valentine’s Day and Rory Hibbert was as very much single as she’d been for the previous four times the holiday rolled around.

“PDA is not okay in the close confines of an airplane,” she said. “Especially when you are doing it into a phone.”

After one final air kiss, her friend Rowan dropped the phone on the tray table. “Sorry. This is the first time Jeremy and I’ve been apart. We’re probably overcompensating with the mushy stuff, but I can’t help it. I’m crazy about him.”

“I know. I couldn’t be more thrilled that you found the love of your life.” Rory guzzled her water. She refused to step off the plane dried out and unmoisturized. Nobody would follow an Insta feed full of chapped lips and flaky skin. “But you promised me that this trip was about avoiding the nonstop love-fest that is the lead-up to Valentine’s Day.”

“As your friend, yes, that was the spin I put on it to persuade you to come along. Although why you’d need to be talked into a paid trip to Italy will go down as one of the great mysteries of life.”

Not again. So what if she’d hesitated? Been wishy-washy about the idea? There were reasons. “It’s a big deal, Rowan. Taking off from work for ten days.”

“That’s why you have vacation time.”

“Yes, but when I just run up to the Twin Cities for a trip, I’m still reachable if they need me. I’m still in the same time zone. Italy is so very…not.” A point her boss had made a solid six times over her last day in the office.

No, her job as a market research analyst didn’t save lives. Didn’t give hope to the underserved.

But it could potentially save the company millions if she constantly compiled the data and came up with new ways to ask questions about their logo and brand colors and their seventeen ever-evolving flavors of cookies and twenty-two kinds of crackers.

On paper, it mattered. Quite a bit. It just didn’t matter to Rory. At all.

Rowan rooted through her bag. It was a little like Santa’s sack in that it always magically held anything needed in any situation. Snacks. Beverages. Pens. Flashlight (not dependent on a potentially dying phone battery). Nail polish. Even a bubble wand—although she had no children of her own.

Rory was in awe of Rowan’s preparedness. In fact, taking a photo of her friend’s bag would be a good Insta story post—traveling with everything you didn’t think you’d ever need.

Handing over lotion, Rowan, said, “Vacation is not supposed to include checking in with work.”

Uh, in the early-twenty-first century? It absolutely did. “Says the biggest type A workaholic I’ve ever known.”

“I’m reformed. Jeremy’s helped me embrace living a life outside of Lakeshore Creative, too.” A smile full of sparkles and hearts melted across her face. “It’s pretty great.”

“Ah. Which is an implicit jab on my not having a boyfriend.” Rory knew it hadn’t been a purposeful dig. It still stung. But perfect men didn’t just appear in front of you. Especially once you’d already been with the perfect man and watched him walk away with barely an apology. “Rather than wallow in my lack of a happily ever after, I throw myself into work. It’s all good.”

“Except you are bored at your job. That is not good. Which is why I knew this trip would be perfect to leverage you out of staying stuck there.” Rowan twisted in her seat. Tucked her hair behind her ears. “You’ve been talking about striking out on your own for over a year now. You haven’t done it.”

True. But it was reckless to do a one-eighty in your life with the snap of a finger. Especially from a solid job with a well-defined ladder to climb, as her parents constantly pointed out. “The timing’s never been right,” Rory hedged.

“Or…you’re scared. You don’t want to jump without a safety net. Which I get. This trip is your safety net. You get to test-drive being a content creator, with my company footing the bill.”

She’d heard the spiel before, obviously. But Rowan kept reminding her of the facts, as if she knew full well that Rory was on the verge of staying on the plane once it landed and heading back to Chicago.

Which was not…entirely…a wrong assumption. Fear did have a way of pumping the brakes on massive life change. Her life was ordered. No uncertainty.

No excitement.

No passion.

No fun.

What mattered was that Rory was on the plane now, though. And, yes, happy that circumstance—maybe even Fate?—had provided a lever to get her out of her rut and moving toward her dream.

“I’m beyond grateful that you convinced your company to take a chance on me. I don’t know how you did it.”

“Well, I am dating the boss’s stepson.” Rowan bumped shoulders with her. “I showed them your work, silly. The online portfolio you created but never sent out anywhere. You’ve got a wonderful eye for making the most mundane things look special. My whole team agrees that you know how to sell, artistically. And believe me, coming from a marketing company, that is high praise.”

Rory put her hand over her heart, thumping in double time at the kind words. “Thanks. It just feels too good to be true. Showcasing a tour group for singles through the Italian countryside—how is this my life?”

“The Escaping Valentine’s Day Hands-On Culinary and Cultural Experience is only your life for a week, Cinderella,” she cautioned. “Then it’s up to you to keep pushing and turn it into something you can live on. If this goes well, Lakeshore Creative will absolutely hire you to do more content creation. Or give you a glowing reference. You’d have to find some other companies to partner with, though, to earn enough to be a full-time freelancer.”

Now her heart thudded in triple time for an entirely opposite reason. “And right there? That’s the reason I haven’t struck out on my own yet. It isn’t like when I got my job at Savor. Send a résumé, two interviews, and you’re sitting at the same desk for five years. Clock in, do the things, get a paycheck that covers all the holiday Starbucks splurging I want, and plan that blowout girls’ trip to New Orleans to celebrate your promotion. This would be scrambling for new things all the time.”

Rowan’s hair crackled as she pulled a brush through it. Their overnight flight across the Atlantic required serious damage control before deboarding and meeting their tour group. If her friend was sprucing up, they must be close to landing. Rory knew she herself needed more than an in-seat touch-up. She felt both disheveled and bedraggled and in desperate need of a mirror and splashing water on her face.

“New things all the time—that sounds, um, exciting?” Rowan asked.

“Exciting, yes. Also terrifying.” Rory interlaced her fingers. Squeezed until her knuckles ached. It wasn’t so much the living on ramen noodles and PB&J aspect. It was the daily chance at failure. “What if I can’t do it? What if I’m not good enough?”

Rowan pulled her hair into a sleek low pony. “I have two answers to that. One: Why on earth would you think something so lousy about yourself? And two: How will you know if you don’t try?”

The support Rowan was offering was almost palpable. Which was wonderful. However, it also forced Rory to, well, face her insecurities. The trouble with a close friend knowing you so well was that they truly did know you—the good, the bad, and the really wished to be ignored bits.

“Do I have to actually provide responses?”

“’Fraid so. Since we’re stuck on an airplane with no way for you to escape my probing looks.” Rowan fiercely squinted her fir-green eyes at Rory.

After peering at the window and seeing nothing but clouds below—aka they weren’t anywhere close to landing and thus escape—Rory sighed. “Fine. You know what my parents are like.”

Nodding like a bobblehead, Rowan said, “You’ve mentioned that they weren’t just helicopter parents. What’s the name for a whole fleet of helicopters? A squadron?”

“Why can’t it be a fleet?”

“I have no idea. But it will bother me the entire trip.”

Hardly. Rory would bet that Rowan lingered by the cockpit on the way out until the pilot emerged and she’d ask him. Because her friend was resourceful and stubborn. Googling for an answer was far too easy.

But she’d only complained in general about her parents to Rowan. It had always been too embarrassing to reveal details. Plus, family dynamics were complex. Difficult to explain to an outsider—even a friend as good as Rowan—the pressure of the guilt that was applied to her in equal amounts to the love.

She’d only ever told the whole story to…well, the man she’d expected to marry someday. Look where that got her. Alone, at twenty-seven, closing in on Valentine’s Day.

“My parents smoothed out every crease in my life. Often before they even occurred. When something did crop up, they took care of it.” If she was truly baring her soul to Rowan, she’d have to give a truly over-the-top example. Of which, sadly, Rowan had plenty. “They wrote my college entrance essays to ‘be sure I got in.’”

“That’s kind of horrible.”

“I was an honors kid. AP all the way. I can rock an essay.” Rory slumped back against the seat. Practically bounced off it, the upholstery was so hard. “Why? Why didn’t they believe I could do it?”

Rowan took her time to formulate an answer. Long enough that Rory tidied up their breakfast trays and handed them off to the attendant. “They think you are the sweetest, smartest, most perfect daughter in the world. Parents always want to make things easier for their kids than they had it.”

“I know. Still, though…” Her voice trailed off. What good was all that adulation if it wasn’t earned or deserved? Rory wanted to prove herself. To her boss. To her parents. To the world.

And—even after five years—to the man who’d given her up in exchange for fame and success.

She scrubbed at her no doubt flattened pixie cut. “They love me. But no, I’m not sure they do believe in me. Believe that I’ve got what it takes.”

“And that’s why you’re not sure. I get it. But you’re twenty-seven. You’ve had a solid job since graduation. You live on your own—”

Making a buzzer sound, Rory cut her off. “Not entirely.” Might as well get it all out.

“You have a secret roommate? Did you get a ferret? That’s sadder than the cat I talked you out of last Valentine’s.”

To be clear, she was supposed to have a roommate. A live-in boyfriend. But that dream had crashed and burned.

“You know that Chicago’s expensive. My first apartment in Irving Park was dingy and old and the entrance was right next to a dumpster. One painted with gang signs.”

“Typical. That’s why I moved out of Albany Park. Yeah, I don’t think I ever knew you lived up there.”

“Because once my parents visited, they insisted on moving me into someplace nicer. Safer. Even though I was happy—ecstatic, actually—to scrape by for a while. Rite of passage, you know?”

A combination grimace and chuckle twisted her friend’s mouth. “I know it intimately. The cockroaches. The skeezy, decades-old crust on the stove burners. Colorful neighbors that both entertain you and freak you out. Strengthens your character.”

“Exactly.” Like life hazing you the moment you crossed the adulting threshold. “But Mom swore she wouldn’t be able to sleep or even function worrying about me there. She had a panic attack so bad it sent her to the hospital. So they moved me to this safe, new condo. I insisted on paying what I did at the old place, and they kick in the balance.”

Rowan shot out a hand to grip the headrest in front of her. As if she was reeling from Rory’s disclosure. “You’ve got to stop that. Move out. Immediately.”

Rory wanted to. Desperately. Had since the day she moved in. What she didn’t want was to be the cause of her mother’s insomnia. Or panic. Which Mom constantly threatened. And that guilt weighed on Rory like a one-hundred-forty-pound emotional boulder. “It isn’t just a tossed-off phrase. Mom could still get panic attacks. They’re terrifying. Like a heart attack.”

“That’s a her problem, not a you problem. And no, I’m not being flippant. Or callous. You aren’t responsible for your mom’s mental status. You won’t move in with a knife-wielding drug lord, for crying out loud. She raised you to live your own life. Not her version of it.”

“I know all that.” Clearly Rowan didn’t suffer from any of her own parentally induced guilt. It was why she’d kept this a secret. “But every time I mention looking, she flips out. Then Dad calls me the next day from the office to remind me that living in a nice place isn’t a punishment or a hardship.”

Neither of her parents understood Rory’s need to struggle a little. To feel that sense of accomplishment. To grow stronger from each disappointment. They just wanted to keep her in a pretty, safe bubble.

“Let me guess.” Rowan slammed her tray table back into place with more gusto than the job actually required. “They aren’t behind you starting your own company, either.”

“To say the least.” Her last mention of it had her mom grabbing her purse for anxiety meds before Rory had fully formed the sentence.

Rowan squeezed her wrist. “Here’s what I know. You’re phenomenal at supporting everyone but yourself. This trip is your chance to not just be excited about your dreams, but follow through on them. And to eat all the pasta in the world.”

“You’re right. I know it. That’s why I’m here, breathing in the dry filtered air and nursing the bruised toe where the drink cart ran over me.” Calm washed over Rory. The hardest, biggest step had been buying the ticket and boarding. Everything else about this trip would be a fun, interesting breeze. “You give good pep talk. If you ever get tired of marketing, you could be a motivational speaker.”

“Bite your tongue. I’ll never get tired of marketing.”

“I’m going to freshen up. I feel like a sloth crawled over my tongue and then nested in my hair.” She stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes. “Good thing you’re the only person I know on the plane. If our tour group were on here, I’d be mortified to run into them like this.”

“Wait.” Rowan pulled a small bottle from her purse. “Dry shampoo. From a new client of Lakeshore Creative. It’ll work miracles.”

Rory snatched it with a grateful smile. Thank God for the anonymity of planes. She could make her way to the bathroom as a mess, and come back as a sleek professional, ready to embark on the next exciting phase of her life.

She’d tried to live her dreams once before. With the man she’d loved. This time, her happiness wouldn’t be tied to a man. To anyone. She’d make it herself.

What better place to manifest a wish than at thirty thousand feet?

“Rory, is that you?” a man’s voice asked.

She didn’t need to lift her eyes from the coffee-stained carpet to identify it.

Because who else did Fate run you smack into, looking your absolute worst, than the ex who broke your heart?

End of Excerpt

Escaping Valentine’s Day is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-958686-24-9

February 2, 2023

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