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Spencer Carmichael slipped on his black suit blazer and adjusted his bright red tie, taking a triumphant spin across his office floor.
He maneuvered over to his computer and cranked up the volume to the popular Christmas tune, The Man with the Bag, that had become his anthem over the last eight years.
He moved his hands back and forth, pretending to play a trumpet while his hips swayed. This evening had been 365 days in the making and it deserved to be celebrated.
Oh, yes. He picked up the football he’d purchased earlier and spiked it in front of a rectangular, cherry oak table containing the popular Warwick’s red velvet gift bags engraved with his signature S.C. label. Reaching inside one of the bags, he pulled out the soft, snow-white flannel, letting the material drop toward the floor.
He continued to hum the tune as he grinned down at his masterpiece. “Hello, lovely.”
The must-have Christmas pajamas that soon everyone would be talking about.
As the lead sleepwear designer for a renowned department store, his weeknights spent held up late in his office, surviving off an endless supply of cold pepperoni pizza and countless cups of late-night coffee had paid off. What would soon be unveiled to the world was nothing less than a Christmas spectacular.
His smile grew even wider as he straightened out the matching set to reveal a Douglas fir Christmas tree that started with the footies decorated as colorful presents and completed with a glistening gold star right below the neckline. Not only was his creation soft and warm, but these beauties came with something never done before in the sleepwear industry.
He pressed a small button sewn into the bottom’s waistband next to the S.C. Exclusive tag. The pajama tree instantly lit up brighter than the one in Rockefeller Center.
“You did good, Carmichael.” He’d spent countless hours with his team on this design.
He didn’t have a choice. A lot was riding on it after last year’s signature Christmas pajamas had been described as “a bit eccentric and lacking Christmas spirit”—NYC Style magazine’s words, not his.
While not a complete flop, sales last year had been his worst in seven Christmas seasons. There’d been whispering up and down the halls of Warwick’s headquarters that he’d lost his edge.
He had to put a kibosh on those rumors not only to safeguard his reputation, but also because another opportunity had presented itself—something that could change his life forever.
Warwick’s was in talks to partner with Accettare, one of the largest fashion houses in Italy, known for their sustainable, eco-friendly couture. As part of the deal, a residency had been set up for one Warwick’s designer to live in Milan for a year as a creative director in residence working alongside some of the greatest talents in the industry.
Eight months ago, he’d put his hat in the ring without hesitation. The deal could be finalized any day.
His gaze moved over the pajamas. There were no ifs, ands, or buts. This design needed to be a sensation.
He heard a loud, cheery voice outside his office door. Ah, the one person who could ensure that he, his Christmas pajamas, and the company would have a very merry holiday. He placed the flannel set back in the velvet red bag, giving a gentle tug on the tinsel pipe drawstrings.
“Spencer!” Mandy Warwick Adler, daughter of CEO Roger Warwick, breezed through the doorway in a red sweater with a gingerbread man broken in half on the front and the words Oh Snap along the side. Her husband and his former college roommate, Tye Adler, was not far behind, sporting a giant Santa Claus wearing a New York Jets jersey in the center of his white sweater.
Back in the day, a smitten Tye would find every conceivable reason to stop by Warwick’s. Spencer finally arranged for Mandy to join them for a happy hour and then conveniently bailed so the two could get to know each other.
The happy couple had just come from the company’s annual tacky sweater holiday party. He air-kissed Mandy before giving Tye a fist bump. “Hey, man, you ready for the big game?” he asked the defensive linebacker, although he pretty much knew the answer. The guy was an incredible force on the field.
Tye flashed a toothy grin. “You know it, Spence.”
“My baby’s going to bring me home some Super Bowl bling in February to match the other ring he gave me last year.” She winked, flashing the sparkly diamond on her left ring finger.
Spencer couldn’t help but laugh. Another enormous ring on her hand might cause Mandy to tip over. “I don’t doubt that he’ll deliver.” He retrieved the football from the floor and opened his drawer, pulling out a Sharpie. “Hey, do you mind signing this for my nephew? I’ve got a jersey too.”
“Sure.” Tye took the football and glided the marker across it.
“Thanks, man. I want to make sure he grows up a Jets fan.” He reached for the jersey he’d also purchased earlier. “My brother-in-law keeps outfitting him in Patriots’ gear.”
Tye shook his head, signing the jersey under his number. “Can’t have that.”
“So, Spencer, Dad tells me you have something for me. Is it ready?” she asked, smoothing her long, black ponytail.
“I sure do.” He’d always appreciated Mandy’s directness. It kept their meetings short and to the point.
Especially when Mandy had an important job to do. Given her notoriety as a social media personality and brand influencer, one well-timed Instagram video of her wearing the light-up Christmas pajamas would be all that was needed for them to become an instant sensation.
All of the prep work had been done weeks ago to take the thousands of online orders that would be rolling in from tonight until Christmas. “Are you ready to be blown away?”
She stretched out her arms, nodding her head fast and furious. “Knock my socks off, Man with the Bag.”
That nickname didn’t bother him in the slightest. He’d worked hard on his brand to conjure feelings of delight by slipping on a warm, soft S.C. design, sipping hot chocolate by a roaring fire while reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas—or whatever holiday thing people did in his pajamas.
He wasn’t the “sit at home by a crackling fire and drinking cocoa” kind of guy.
Yet he did play an important role in the season each year, bringing merriment to thousands of households as the man who designed the popular sleepwear shown off in family Christmas photos around the world. “I think you’re really going to like what I’ve designed.” He reached for two bags and handed one to Mandy and the other to Tye. “Merry Christmas.”
Tye fidgeted with the drawstring on his bag. “Better than last year’s pink feathers?”
“Baby . . .” Mandy swiftly elbowed her husband as she narrowed her lashes. “We agreed not to bring that up.”
Spencer waved his hand, intercepting Mandy’s side-eye. The final sales numbers proved they’d been mediocre. He’d accepted that hard, cold fact months ago. “It’s much better than last year.” He paused, adding, “And no feathers. I promise.”
“Well, I can’t wait to get into them.” Mandy held the bag close. “And no peeking, Tye. I want it to be a surprise.” She grinned. “We’re going straight home and getting into them.”
“Any chance these are Star Wars themed?” Tye asked, making a Jedi lightsaber motion.
Spencer chuckled, shaking his head. “Not this year, bro.”
Tye took Mandy’s bag, holding both of them. “You know I only do this for you, baby.”
“And that’s why I love you,” Mandy cooed as she wrapped her arms around her husband and sacked him with a kiss.
Spencer shoved his hands in his pockets and looked off to the side. Public displays of affection weren’t really his thing. Actually, neither were relationships. It’d been a while since he’d been in one, and that was fine. He turned and grabbed his black wool coat off the back of his chair. The lovebirds could carry on, but he had somewhere important to be.
Now that the light-up pajamas had been placed in Mandy’s powerful hands, he could get on with the rest of his evening, which consisted of driving to Brooks Bend, Connecticut, to drop off pajama sets to his mother, father, sister and her family—a tradition he’d started with his first set of S.C. exclusive pajamas eight years ago.
He’d drop off the bags, stay for a glass of his father’s homemade eggnog, and then head back to the city for a good night’s sleep. He’d need it to catch his predawn flight out of JFK to spend the holidays the way they were meant to be spent—sinking his toes into pure, white sand with a tropical drink in hand. He could feel the bright sun on his face as the ocean waves lapped in front of him. He’d be off the grid for two full weeks.
“Are you headed to the Bahamas again this year, Spencer?”
Mandy’s question snapped him out of the flight he’d already taken in his mind. “I’ve got a big blue ocean just waiting for me to snorkel in.”
He picked up the rest of the S.C. gift bags, catching a look of pity behind Mandy’s eyes. It wasn’t like he wasn’t spending any time this Christmas with his family. “I’m driving up to Brooks Bend first.” He held the bags up in the air. “Have to give them their Christmas presents.”
Mandy pointed out his office window, where the snow had started to fall. “Spencer, just once, wouldn’t you enjoy a wintery northeast Christmas snuggled up in your amazing pajamas under a warm wool blanket, watching fluffy white snow fall from the sky without a care in the world?”
He laughed at the classic Christmas greeting card Mandy had verbally painted. “I’m more of a ‘wish you were here,’ swim trunks, and flip-flops kind of guy.” Maybe that sounded pitiful for a thirty-four-year-old man to willingly spend the holidays alone every year, but he didn’t give it much thought.
Being unattached suited him. He’d seen the struggle his sister and brother-in-law had deciding which family to spend the holidays with each year. He didn’t need that drama.
He walked them out of his office. “Merry Christmas. Good luck in the big game, Tye. I’ll see you both in the new year.”
“Merry Christmas, Spencer! Keep an eye on your social media tonight.” She gave him a big hug and winked. “Your present will come early.”
“I’m counting on it.” He and everyone at Warwick’s would be holding their breaths until Mandy’s faithful post.
Spencer hummed merrily as he made his way down the hallway, passing by the long train of festive green garland with shiny red and gold balls that connected the row of cubicles.
After stepping off the elevator, he made his way through the lobby to the entrance.
“There he is. The Man with the Bag.” George, the security guard, grinned.
“Santa Claus has nothing on me, George,” Spencer joked back, hoisting up the pajama bags. “Have a merry Christmas.”
“You too.” The old man opened the door, holding it for Spencer. “Take it easy out there. The snow’s starting to stick.”
“Thanks. I will.” Spencer stepped outside and inhaled the cold, crisp winter air, his phone buzzing inside his coat. It took a few seconds of jostling the red bags to see his mom had video called him.
“Hey, Mom.” He paused, bringing the phone to eye level. The woman on the other end was in a gray wig, sporting a red velvet mop hat and wire-rimmed glasses. “Mom? Is that you?” he asked, watching her go to town with a rolling pin.
“Of course it’s me, Spencer. I’m making cookies for the Elfcapades. Your dad’s holding the phone so I could roll out the dough. I’ve got to make twelve dozen cookies for tomorrow night’s Cookies and Cocoa Crawl. Earl, can you hand me that bowl of reindeer frosting?”
He rolled his eyes. Elfcapades? Cookies and Cocoa Crawl? Did he even want to know what an Elfcapade entailed or what was in reindeer frosting? The place he’d left after high school had a tendency for getting fully into the Christmas spirit. Another reason he wasn’t fond of small-town life.
Give him an evening kicking back at his favorite five-star restaurant with a nice steak dinner and glass of Merlot, preparing to enjoy a chocolate dessert that wasn’t layered with reindeer frosting.
“I just wanted to call and warn you that the roads might be a little slick. The snow’s starting to pick up.”
He bit back a grin. The perfect excuse to knock and run was literally falling from the sky. He made his way through the building’s adjacent garage to his car. “Don’t worry. I’m leaving right now. I should be there in an hour or so.”
“Earl, get your fingers out of the icing,” his mother scolded his father with a wave of her rolling pin. “Those are for the cookies.”
Spencer smirked. His dad could never resist a taste.
“Spencer, take it easy on the roads.”
“No, seriously,” she ordered through the phone. “No speeding, and it’s best to take the highway. The back roads through The Vine are usually the first to ice.”
He reached his Audi and opened the passenger-side door, placing the bags on the leather seat. “Don’t worry about me. I know how to drive in the snow. Save me a cookie, Mrs. Claus. I’ll see you soon.”
As he made the familiar drive north, he passed the time listening to holiday music while keeping an eye on his phone safely lodged in the car holder his dad had put in his stocking last year.
Though he insisted at the start of every holiday season that his parents spend their money on his sister’s twins, his mom always made sure to give him a full stocking that he could open before he left on his trip. It usually contained a bottle of sunscreen.
Guilt pricked at his neck. He gave it a good scratch. It didn’t make him a bad son that he didn’t spend the holidays with his family. He just wasn’t into Christmas.
Maybe that was a little weird, given his livelihood.
As he got closer to Brooks Bend, the snowflakes grew larger, coming down fast onto his windshield. He fiddled with the wipers, peering out the windshield. His parents would understand his heading back to the city.
He’d suggest they get together when he returned from vacation—he could take them out to dinner at Dee Dee’s Diner, a Brooks Bend hot spot. Better yet, maybe they could all have a nice post-holiday brunch in Manhattan.
He turned off one exit early. Cutting through the back road—or The Vine, as the locals affectionally called it because of its twists and turns—would shave off time. What Mom doesn’t know won’t hurt her.
He slowed down as his tires forged through the unplowed road. He’d grown up driving in snow, but since he rarely drove these days outside the city, he was out of practice. He flashed his high beams and maneuvered down the dirt road, barely able to make out two feet in front of him.
His phone dinged.
He reached over to the phone mount and swiped the screen, grinning at Mandy on his screen, her back to the camera.
“Everyone, do I have a special, cozy treat for you tonight,” she said behind her shoulder. “Are you ready to see this year’s ultimate Warwick’s exclusive Christmas pajamas from the Man with the Bag?”
His pulse accelerated. “Yes!” he yelled out loud before sucking in his breath.
“All right. Here we go. One . . . two . . .” She adjusted her long ponytail. “Three.” She spun around and threw her arms in the air. “Ta-da!” She pranced around in her pajamas, pulling up a leg to show off a footie. “Holiday festive from head to toe.”
Spencer let out his breath as his screen filled up fast with little red hearts from her thousands of viewers. Mission accomplished.
“Aren’t these just the best?” She reached behind her and picked up a mug. “And as a bonus treat, I’ve added my Mandy’s Candy Cane frozen hot chocolate recipe to my blog. You can enjoy your very own Rockefeller tree and frozen hot chocolate for a quintessential New York City Christmas.”
She showed off the huge red mug filled with the iced drink, whipped cream, and a candy cane, bringing it to her lips. “Yum! And that’s not even the best part.” She set the mug down.
“Tye, baby. Get the lights.”
“You got it, sweetheart.” Tye popped into the screenshot in his pajamas and gave a quick wave.
The screen went dark, but only for a second. In no time, both Mandy and Tye were lit up.
“This year’s must-have jammies!” Mandy clapped her hands. “Aren’t they simply spectacular? So, let’s all get out our credit cards. It’s time to ord—” She stopped and glanced at her husband. “What’s that smell?”
Smell? Spencer enlarged the video with his fingers. What was she talking about? And why was she scrunching her nose?
The influencer began to shriek, “Baby, you’re on fire!”
Fire? Spencer’s jaw dropped as smoke filled his phone screen.
“No. No. No!” This couldn’t be happening. He watched in horror while Mandy doused her husband square in the chest with her frozen hot chocolate. “Tye’s okay, everyone,” Mandy shouted over her shoulder. “Nothing to worry about. Uh . . . we’ve got to go. Have a good night.” The video suddenly cut off, but the comments kept flying.
Spencer’s chest tightened. Did that just happen?
Apparently so. The rush of hearts was immediately replaced with red angry faces running up the screen—and that wasn’t all. Comments flooded in.
Worse than last year’s pajamas.
Man with the Bag ruins Christmas.
“I ruined Christmas,” he deadpanned the last comment, trying to comprehend what just happened. How did his pajamas catch fire? It wasn’t possible. They’d passed every fabric regulation and safety test. He snapped out of his fog. “I need to get back to New York this instant.”
Not thinking, he hit his brakes, causing the car wheels to immediately slide.
Ice flooded his veins. Get your foot off the brake! He gripped the steering wheel, trying to regain control, but it was too late. His car slid sideways, careened off the slippery road, and landed within seconds into a mound of snow.
Heart pounding, breath shaky, he unlatched his hands from the steering wheel, wiggling his fingers. Nothing was broken.
He turned off the engine and gazed over at his phone, expecting it to buzz any minute with a furious Roger Warwick on the other side.
His stomach twisted in a huge knot. Setting the CEO’s son-in-law on fire was likely grounds for termination.
“I’ve got to fix this,” Spencer said out loud. His career couldn’t end this way. He started the car and shoved the shift into reverse. Spinning tires and a large clunking noise he didn’t recognize were the first clues the Audi wasn’t going anywhere.
Well, just terrific. He’d have to call for help.
Angry little faces filling his screen.
Frustrated, he grabbed the red velvet bags from the passenger seat and rolled down his car window, tossing each pajama bag onto the snow. He picked up his phone and punched in 9-1-1.
So much for a merry Christmas.
End of Excerpt