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Qara Whitaker fidgeted in her leather chair while she waited for the verdict on her marketing proposal. Her client, Charles Willis, was taking his time thumbing through each individual page of the thick report from his spot in front of her sleek wooden desk. A million dollars. That was how much landing this client would net the Laxel Corporation. Qara had busted her butt on the proposal, for good reason. Getting the go-ahead would mean one more rung up the ladder toward her goal of becoming partner.
The cell phone in her pocket vibrated, signaling the second of three alarms. Qara glanced at the time and swallowed a groan. Ten more minutes, tops. That was all the time she had until she’d officially be running late for her grandmother’s birthday dinner.
Tap-tap-tap. Darn, she was drumming her fingers on the desk again. Not a good idea to come across as impatient to a client. Qara shoved her hands into her lap and focused her attention on the giant floor-to-ceiling glass office walls. The immaculate sight that greeted her eyes on the other side temporarily soothed her impatience. With its speckled marble floors, etched glass doors, and original artwork evenly spaced throughout the hallway to add a splash of color to the otherwise neutral tones, the Laxel Corporation offices were the picture of sophistication and class. Qara especially loved the red blooms of the poinsettias that graced the waiting room tables right now and the pine and nutmeg that perfumed the air, giving the interior a festive feel.
The swish of paper drew her focus back to Mr. Willis. He closed the report and folded his hands on top. “Impressive, Ms. Whitaker. Since Laxel is one of the most prominent marketing firms in Manhattan, I had high expectations. But you still managed to surprise me.”
Qara’s cheeks warmed at the unexpected praise. “Thank you, Mr. Willis.”
A tension she hadn’t even realized she’d been carrying released from her chest, allowing her to breathe easier. Partner track, here I come.
Her phone vibrated its third alarm and Qara flinched. Partner track or not, her family would never let her hear the end of it if she missed her grandmother’s seventieth birthday dinner.
Qara jumped to her feet, hoping the action would prompt Mr. Willis into a pace that wouldn’t rival a snail. The tall, gray-haired man slid the proposal into his briefcase and then stood, and Qara sent up a silent prayer of thanks. She hurried around her meticulously organized desk and extended her hand.
The executive shook hers with a firm grip and dipped his head. “My office will be in touch in a few weeks. Enjoy the holidays, Ms. Whitaker.”
“You as well.”
When Mr. Willis exited the office, Qara wanted to sink into her chair and take a minute for herself. Relax, close her eyes, rub her aching temples—anything to relieve some of the stress she’d been carrying these past few weeks. The endless hours she’d spent working on the proposal had taken a toll even on her typically unimpressive social life. No meeting friends for an occasional dinner, and forget drinks. Alcohol didn’t lend itself to staying up all night to edit proposals with an eagle eye. She’d even skipped the annual department sale she always hit for holiday gifts for her family, in order to ensure her proposal would exceed Mr. Willis’s high standards.
After one last regretful look at her chair, Qara grabbed her favorite pink knit scarf off the rack and flung it around her neck. Next came the matching beanie, which she slapped on her head, her pin-straight black hair cascading down her back. Then, she grabbed her purse and her thick cream wool coat, shoving her arms inside the sleeves.
“Everything go well with, Mr. Willis?” Amanda, Laxel’s receptionist, beamed at Qara as she scurried out of her office.
“Don’t know. Hopefully though since he said he was surprised in a good way,” Qara said.
“Mr. Willis seemed happy when he left, if that helps any.” With a quick grin and sunny disposition, the blonde receptionist always made Qara feel at home. “Plus, I know how hard you worked on the proposal. I mean, you’ve passed up happy hour how many times?”
“You know me.” Qara waved a dismissive hand in the air. “Need to do the best I can. And now my hard work is about to pay off.”
Amanda tapped her index finger against the desk and quirked a brow. “Oh, yes. I do know you. We went out to lunch when you first started working here. After that, I would literally have to drag you out to eat something or come sit in your office with lunch because you’d focus too much on work. And let’s not get into the fact happy hour is like a four-letter word to you.”
Qara smirked. At twenty-eight years old, she didn’t have much of a social life. Her friend was right. While most people her age dated, went out on the weekends, and had hobbies, Qara spent most of her free time at Laxel. “Need to pay the bills.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “You know what they say about all work and no play. Being a workaholic isn’t good for you in the long run.”
Before Qara could utter a rebuttal, the door to the meeting room opened. Jeremy stepped out wearing his signature smile and the scent of cedar and pine, a combination Qara found agreeable. Like Qara, he was one of Laxel’s younger employees, and his face lit up when he spotted her.
“So, how’d it go?” he asked, as he strolled over to Amanda’s desk. “Did all those long hours in the office pay off?”
Qara’s toe tapped an impatient beat against the marble floor. Jeremy was nice, but he always managed to pop up wherever she was. Occasionally even he invited her out on a Thursday for drinks. She was flattered, really. But any romance right now would only serve as a distraction, and an office romance… forget it. That was a big no-no in her book. Especially now, with Mr. Willis’s career-altering decision looming on the horizon. Still, she didn’t want to come across as rude.
“Good, I think. I hope. I’m still a little nervous, though.” She pulled out her phone, wincing when she saw the time. Uh-oh. Rude or not, she had to go. “I’m actually running late to my grandmother’s birthday dinner. Catch you two tomorrow?”
Jeremy’s expression fell.
Amanda laughed and shooed her away. “You better get to dinner. I don’t think your family will forgive you for missing it due to work.”
“You have no idea.” Qara waved over her shoulder while rushing into the hallway toward the elevators. She jabbed the button to take her to the bottom floor and watched the numbers light up. Was the elevator slower than usual today? Between the evening traffic and the holiday tourists that flooded the city, getting to Carmine’s on time was going to require a small miracle.
Finally, the elevator dinged and the doors opened. Qara counted the seconds as she descended the eleven floors. After what felt like an eternity, the doors slid open.
Qara briskly strode through the lobby, taking no time to appreciate her favorite crystal chandelier or the fifteen-foot-tall Christmas tree near the front window. Outside, New York’s crisp winter air bit at her skin. She pulled her coat tighter and hurried to the curb. She held up her hand to hail a cab, but the yellow car whizzed right by. As did the next five, all of them full of holiday shoppers. Perfect, just perfect. With a frustrated sigh, she huddled into her coat and started walking. Looked like she’d be hoofing it to Carmine’s.
At least she had delicious food to look forward to when she arrived. Carmine’s was one of her and her emee’s favorite places to eat in the city—in fact, her grandmother requested to dine there every opportunity she got. Not that anyone blamed her. The restaurant’s traditional southern-Italian dishes were to die for.
Qara hurried through the throngs of shoppers while dodging slick, glistening patches of ice. No time today to stop and appreciate the colorful holiday window displays. She inhaled deeply instead, making do with the delicious aromas of chocolate, peppermint, and sugar cookies that wafted her way when shoppers emerged from the stores.
After a seemingly endless stretch of sidewalk, she made a left down Forty-Fourth and spotted the Carmine’s sign. Finally. A large crowd waited outside, their kaleidoscope of coat colors ratting them out as tourists. She weaved her way between groups until she made it inside and was instantly engulfed by a wall of blessed warmth. Good thing. Much longer in the cold wind and her cheeks might have chafed off.
She craned her head but didn’t see any of her family waiting. Uh-oh. A quick glance at her phone confirmed her fears. She’d missed a text from her sister, Rose, informing her that they’d already been seated upstairs. It was now official.
Qara was late. Again.
She hustled up the stairs, spotted their table, and made her way over—all the while prepping herself for the annoying comments she was sure her sister would have ready.
“Qara!” Her mother jumped up and hugged her. “We were getting worried you forgot about tonight.”
“How could I forget?” Qara returned her mom’s embrace and then made her way over to her grandmother, giving her a gentle hug before sitting down. “Happy birthday, Emee.”
“Thank you, sweetheart,” her grandmother said.
Her sister Rose put down the menu and shot her a smirk. “Let me guess, work hold you up? Or a hot guy? Oh, wait. You don’t date. Too busy with proposals and all that.”
Qara bit back a sigh as she shrugged off her coat, determined not to take the bait. She wasn’t in the mood for her sister’s teasing tonight. She loved Rose, but her sister just didn’t understand the demands of a stable job. Not when Rose was used to setting her own schedule and hours as a travel blogger. “I’m here now and I’m starving.”
She hung her coat on the back of her chair and sat down before diving for the plate of fried calamari. The sweet and spicy scent made her stomach rumble, and she scraped a tiny mountain onto her appetizer plate. Her father laughed and jokingly wrestled the dish away from her. “You going to leave any for the rest of us?”
Qara quirked a brow at him. “You see the size of that plate. It could feed our family for two days.”
Emee tsked. “Leave the girl alone and let her eat.”
Qara stuffed a bite into her mouth and almost groaned her pleasure aloud when the flavors hit her taste buds. Mmm, so good. Carmine’s had the best calamari around. “How was the traffic getting here?”
Her father set his glass of water down with a thunk. “Heavier than usual. But it’s the holidays.”
“And there was even room in the parking garage around the block,” her mother added.
That was a miracle for anyone driving into the city. Between all the restaurants and theaters, parking was usually impossible to find in Times Square. Throw in the holidays and finding parking close to wherever one had to be was nonexistent most of the time.
Rose huffed. “Can we order our main plates? While I appreciate the appetizers, I’m here for the chicken saltimbocca.”
Emee and Mom both turned to stare at Rose. Her younger sister blinked rapidly, her cheeks turning a bright pink. “Err, I mean, I’m here for Emee, of course. The food is just a bonus.”
Emee snorted. “Rose, dear, I’ve been waiting to order the veal all week.”
While Qara happily munched away on the delicious, sweet squid, her father waved their waiter over. They took turns ordering and when their server left, Emme cleared her throat. “I have a surprise for my two granddaughters.”
Rose choked on the water she’d been drinking and thunked the glass down on the table before coughing into her napkin.
When she recovered, she turned to their grandmother. “You have a surprise for us? It’s your birthday, we’re the ones who should be surprising you.”
Emee laughed. Her dark eyes gleamed when she glanced back and forth between Qara and her sister, making an alarm ping in Qara’s head. Uh-oh. Her grandmother was definitely up to something. Sure enough, Emee reached for her purse and placed it in her lap. After unzipping the small lavender bag, the older woman reached inside and pulled out two envelopes.
Qara tilted her head and wrinkled her forehead, her gaze focused on the creamy-white paper. “What are those?”
Rose narrowed her eyes and smirked. “Probably the profile of a potential date whose name isn’t Laxel. You know you can’t marry a corporation, right?”
Qara’s nostrils flared, but before she could respond Emee extended one of the envelopes to Rose and the other to her. Qara hesitated a moment before taking it from her grandmother’s hand. She didn’t love surprises. Or anything she couldn’t plan, to be honest. She carefully pulled back the flap before retrieving the contents and her mouth fell open. In her hand was a plane ticket. Qara jerked her head in Rose’s direction and, yup. Her sister was holding a matching ticket.
What on earth?
“Emee… what is this?” Qara’s brows furrowed even more as she scanned the information and saw the letters ULN. Which domestic airport’s code was ULN?
Emee beamed. “It’s a plane ticket to Mongolia!”
At her grandmother’s cheerful proclamation, the air rushed from Qara’s lungs. Mongolia as in, Mongolia? The country by China? The country where Emee had been born?
When Qara glanced at Rose to see how her sister was reacting to this news, she found her sitting with her mouth hanging open wide enough to catch a canary. Her dad coughed as if he had momentarily choked on whatever was in his mouth and her mother stared unblinkingly at Emee. Obviously, no one knew what her grandmother had done.
Qara’s mother took a deep breath and turned to Emee. “Mom, that is an expensive trip. Why didn’t you tell us?”
Emee chuckled at their reactions. “It’s been twelve years since I’ve been to my homeland, when we all went as a family for one week. I miss it and figured what better birthday gift to give myself than to travel back home with my two, beautiful granddaughters. I wish for you both to also learn more about your heritage and history. Plus, there is family you have yet to meet.”
Qara’s stomach sank. Oh no. Rose glanced at the plane ticket one more time before squealing and flashing Emee an excited grin. “Thank you, this is the best idea ever! I can’t wait to pack, Emee! When are we leaving?”
While her sister shrieked with joy, a cement weight lodged in Qara’s chest. This trip couldn’t have come at a worse time. Qara had the weekend already planned out, and it did not include a long plane flight to a foreign country. No, she needed to begin drafting an alternative proposal for Mr. Willis. A backup, just in case. Even though he’d said he was impressed with her plan, he still hadn’t signed off to move forward. Once he reviewed it with his team, they might want something different. She always wanted to be prepared. She figured his office might get back to her by Monday, since Christmas would be over by then. But the excited grin on her grandmother’s face as she handed her and Rose the tickets was priceless. Once again, Qara felt pulled in two directions—work, and everything else. If she didn’t get this account because of some last-minute travel, she’d be beating herself up for months afterward. But she also would never forgive herself for letting her grandmother down.
Qara shook her head. She was being silly. She was organized. Disciplined. There had to be a way she could make this trip work and keep her chance and manage her accounts.
“Qara, dear, you’ve been quiet. Are you not excited to go?” Emee’s question made four pairs of eyes focus on her.
Rose rolled her eyes. “Probably too worried about work. The only twenty-eight-year-old with a one-note life.”
Qara’s skin prickled. “This again. I heard it all in high school. How all I did was choose nonstop studying and obsessing over grades instead of fun. But how else was I supposed to get a college scholarship that would cover the entire tuition? And for your information, my darling sister, the only issue I have is that I do need to give my boss a heads-up. We can’t all make money creating blogs and working for ourselves.”
Her father sat back and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Both of you, enough. Stop bickering. Neither of your ways are right or wrong.”
Except that wasn’t true. If her sister would have considered how their parents would have to pay two college tuition costs since they were only two years apart, maybe Rose would’ve spent more time studying to earn scholarship money. Which is why she barely got enough financial aid to cover a quarter of her tuition. Qara was more fortunate and received a scholarship that covered half her tuition. But she wasn’t going to argue. Not when her dad didn’t realize she was aware of the debt her parents were in—the reason they pushed off their retirement. At least with the increase in salary if she landed this proposal, she’d be able to take care of her family.
Qara took a deep breath and slid the plane ticket back into the envelope before smiling at her grandmother. “I’m more than excited to go.”
Emee patted her hand. “Don’t worry, dear. It’s only for a week. We’ll be back on January first. With the holidays, I’m sure most people will be spending time with their families anyway.”
Qara inhaled a slow, deep breath. Now she also had a chance to prove her sister wrong. Qara was a skilled multitasker. There was no reason she couldn’t work and have fun. Still, she was grateful when the waiter arrived with their food. While her family began digging in and chatting about the upcoming trip, Qara used the distraction as an opportunity to check her phone and send off a few quick work texts.
With Amanda’s help, she should be able to put together a well-curated plan to make this trip work. It’d be short notice, but she did have those extra vacation days that she’d never used. Plus, it was usually quiet the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so hopefully no one would have a problem with her taking off last minute. She’d plead her case. Her gaze fell on the envelope holding the printed e-ticket and she bit her lip.
End of Excerpt