Not Christmas Without You

by

Jane Porter

She’s swearing off men, but the rules don’t apply to him

Charity Wright has a history of picking the wrong guys and has decided to swear off men for the month of December–no dates, no kisses, no holiday romance–a decision made all that much harder when she meets the man that could be her Mr. Right, Marietta native and professional baseball player, Quinn Douglas.

Just out of a long term relationship, Quinn Douglas isn’t looking for love at the Little Teton Resort, and he certainly isn’t interested in a girl from home, but now that he’s met Charity, he can’t get her out of his mind. Charity even has him rethinking his career and life on the road. Is Charity the missing piece he’s been looking for?

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It wasn’t the worst breakup in history.

Charity Wright knew that on the spectrum of heartbreaks, hers was mild. It was the sort of thing that someone might say “I have a touch of the flu,” except hers was a touch of heartbreak. Not so devastating that the holidays would be completely ruined but dispiriting, for sure. She secretly suspected that she might be getting too old to believe that happy-ever-afters could exist. And yet, she wasn’t a good pessimist. She preferred to see the glass as half-full, but on the inside she was increasingly worried. Was something wrong with her?

Why couldn’t she meet “the one”? Or, had she met the one—her thoughts immediately went to her first love, Joe Wyatt, before shying away—and she’d blown her only opportunity for happy-ever-after? Maybe soul mates didn’t exist. Maybe there wouldn’t be a Mr. Right for her, never mind a Mr. Perfect.

Her younger sister, Amanda, said Charity hadn’t found Mr. Right because Charity’s standards weren’t high enough—at least not since Joe, and he was years ago.

Older-sister Jenny said it was because all those romance novels Charity had read growing up had poisoned her brain, making her think that love was easy and fun. Obviously Jenny had never read a romance novel, because in romance, love was not easy or fun. Love was a battlefield, with a little nod to the great 80s’ singer, Pat Benatar.

This was why Charity needed a break from men and dating. She was just too banged up. A little too bruised. Charity was usually a never-ending well of hope, but at the moment, her hope was running dry. Which was why she kept thinking about Tricia’s offer to attend the travel agent familiarization trip in Wyoming in Tricia’s place.

It’d be a chance to get away from Marietta, a chance to have a break from the real estate office—as she unfortunately worked with her ex, the double-timing Greg—and a chance to go somewhere she’d never been. The Tetons were only a five-hour drive from Marietta, but she’d never been.

Growing up, the Wright sisters hadn’t traveled much because the family didn’t have the means to travel, never mind manage rent and food. But Charity was thirty now, and this travel agent familiarization would get her there, and even better, it was free. A four-night, five-day all-expense paid trip to a little ski resort in Wyoming. Would it be so wrong to go?

Was it so awful to pretend to be Tricia Thorpe instead of Charity Wright?

It wasn’t as if Tricia was a stranger. Tricia had been a close friend since they were girls, and Tricia’s brother married Charity’s sister, Jenny, making them family. And since Tricia couldn’t go on the trip due to a work conflict, and the Little Teton ski resort really wanted Marietta Travel to participate, why couldn’t Charity represent Marietta Travel?

It wasn’t as if Charity knew nothing about the travel agency. She’d worked for them one summer when they were shorthanded and she was in between jobs. True, she hadn’t actually booked travel, but she’d filed brochures and printed travel itineraries and assisted the agents with their research. She actually quite liked the job. She’d hoped they would hire her and train her, but they had wanted someone with experience, someone who already knew how to use the computer software and had a client base. That’s how Charity had ended up working for Sam Melk at Melk Realty, and then how she met Greg, who’d been hired a year after she started there. They were no longer dating, but Greg remained a problem, making little digs, constantly goading her. Charity shouldn’t have ever dated him in the first place, but what was done was done. All she could do was move forward.

A trip to Wyoming sounded like the perfect break, a most welcome break. Provided she didn’t have to ski—of course she’d been skiing at Bridger Bowl, just outside of Bozeman and she’d also done a little bit of skiing at Big Sky—but she was still quite an intermediate skier, and wasn’t cut out for black diamond anything.

Tricia had said no skiing was required. Tricia said Charity simply needed to soak up all the information and report back, and if there was anything Charity did well, it was taking notes.

Charity shut down her computer, walked through Melk Realty turning off printers and lights, adjusting the thermostat for the night, before locking the door on the office and making her way two blocks south on Main Street to Marietta Travel.

Outside, festive white lights framed the windows and green garland wrapped around the light posts lining the street. The decorations on Main Street were familiar and beloved, and while Charity cherished her life in Marietta, there were disadvantages to living in a small town. She knew everyone, and everyone knew her, which also meant they knew when her romantic life derailed.

Marietta Travel still blazed with light and, peeking through the front window painted with a huge blue globe, topped with a jaunty red ribbon and the words The World is Yours in a gorgeous font, Charity spotted Tricia still at her desk in the glassed-in office at the very back.

Charity gave the painted window a quick critical study before trying the door. The paint was holding up. Good. She’d worried it might crack with the cold but it looked perfect still. No one but Tricia knew Charity had painted the window when Tricia’s usual sign painter tripped on his own icy sidewalk and broke his wrist, preventing him from doing the job. Tricia knew that Charity was forever sketching clothes, and asked Charity if she’d be willing to decorate their window for the Marietta Stroll, and Charity hadn’t been able to turn down the chance to make a little extra money on the side. With both of her parents now retired, money in her family was always tight.

Charity stuck her head inside the front door and called to Tricia, “Hey, Trish, am I interrupting?”

Tricia left her desk and waved her in. “Just wrapping up a few things. Come on back.”

“Anything I can help with?”

“Nope, just organizing itineraries to go out to customers tomorrow.” Tricia gave her a hopeful look. “Have you decided about the Little Teton familiarization trip?”

“I think I want to do it.”

“Good! It should be fun. Most of the agents will probably be older, but there might be a few other young ones.”

“I don’t care about that. I’d love to be able to help you. You’re always looking out for me.”

“Well, it would help us. The owners really want Marietta Travel there, aware that we have some clients with deep pockets, and you know our clientele. You know what people here are looking for when they say they want a great weekend getaway, or a cool, but affordable ski trip.”

“I do think it’d be fun to learn something new. I promise to take extensive notes.”

“I know you will. That’s why I’m encouraging you to go. You go be our ears and eyes, report back if Little Teton is the new place for us to recommend.” Tricia gave her a sly look. “It also means you’d miss the Stroll this weekend, and we all know Greg is going to parade his Miss Livingston around all weekend. Do you really want to be there to see that?”

“No.” That alone made Charity shudder. “Definitely don’t want to be party to that, but at the same time, I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“You won’t. They want us there. They’re excited Marietta Travel is participating. I’ll send some of my business cards with you, and an old driver’s license for checking in.”

“Do I need to dye my hair brown? Mandy could—”

“No, don’t! It’d never be the same. And no one will say anything about the hair color, not when everyone is turning their hair blue these days. Just go and have fun and forget about Greg and what a two-timing schmuck he is, okay?”

“Easier said than done, but yes, that’s the plan.”

The last time Quinn Douglas had flown into Jackson Hole he’d been with his former girlfriend, Alice, and her father Leo Sterling on their private plane, flying in from Seattle for Christmas at the Sterling’s vast Wyoming ranch with the equally impressive, sprawling ten-thousand-square-foot “lodge.”

By the time they’d arrived on December twenty-third, the Sterling ranch house had already been prepped by staff for the holidays, with a fourteen-foot tree in the great room, and fresh green boughs wrapping the rough-hewn bannister railings. Gingerbread cookies had been baked and fires had crackled in all seven fireplaces. There had been a lot of eating and drinking and extravagant gift giving. Quinn had found Christmas with the Sterlings perfectly enjoyable—after all, it was his second holiday spent with them—but a Sterling Christmas was a far cry to his humble beginnings in Paradise Valley, Montana.

Last year, on Christmas Day, he drove to Marietta for an evening meal with his family—sister McKenna and her clan, brother Rory and his new bride. McKenna hosted a Douglas family dinner at her and Trey’s house, and it was the complete opposite of the Sterling Christmas—noisy and chaotic with babies crying and kids fighting and lots of good-natured ribbing and laughter. There was no staff to do the work, thus everyone pitched in, with cooking and kids and cleanup.

Quinn enjoyed playing bachelor uncle, even on his back in front of the living room fire with his nieces and nephews crawling all over him. He’d loved being with his family, and he adored the nieces and nephews, but it made him question the future. His future.

His phone rang as he waited for his rental car to be brought around. He glanced at the number. Alice.

Quinn tensed and then took a deep breath and answered the call. Even though they’d broken up over the summer, she still stayed in close touch, in hopes that they might get back together. “Hey,” he said, answering, the call.

“So you made it?” she asked.

“Just got here. Picking up my car now.”

“I wish I was there. I love Jackson Hole.”

“It is gorgeous,” he agreed, suppressing the ambivalence he felt every time they talked.

Alice had wanted to marry him. She still wanted to marry him. They’d dated for almost three years, and she’d taken the breakup hard, feeling as if she’d invested a huge chunk of her life into him and she was still trying to get him back. There would be no going back. He didn’t know how to explain it to her without hurting her more, and so he smashed his unease and tried to be supportive, hoping that eventually she’d meet someone new and be able to move on.

“Lots of snow?” she asked.

“It’s been snowing all day.”

“The powder would be amazing.” Alice sighed wistfully. “We haven’t had great snow in the Cascades yet, which reminds me why I’ve called. Dad is still interested in that resort. He knows they’re struggling financially and he’s considering making them an offer.”

“I don’t think they’re looking to sell.”

“But they would, for the right price.”

“Your dad lowballs everyone.”

“Come on, sweetie, that’s not fair. He’s just a tough negotiator, and it’s what makes him so successful.”

“Mmm.” Quinn wasn’t about to contradict her, because Alice had always been a daddy’s girl, but Leo Sterling was ruthless, and he’d made a fortune by taking advantage of those who were desperate. It wasn’t the way Quinn had been raised and it made him leery of the future. If he married Alice, he could walk out of professional sports and be set for life, not because of what he’d achieved, but because her father, Leo Sterling, had built a dazzling real estate empire of luxury properties across the world and was one of the wealthiest men on the West Coast. Quinn could leave baseball behind—and Alice was desperate for him to leave ball and get off the road—and then Quinn could become her father’s right hand, the son he never had. It was all that Alice wanted.

And nothing Quinn wanted.

He tried to share with Alice his reservations, but she couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to be part of her family’s company. His resistance to working with her family became an issue between them, and it made him question his commitment to her.

If he truly loved Alice, the shifting of his career shouldn’t be so hard. If he loved Alice, he should be happy to stay in Seattle and become vice president of Sterling Luxury Resorts. It would be a cushy job. All the hard work would have been done for him. All he needed to do was show up, dress the part, wine and dine clients, shake hands, sign a few autographs and be the good son-in-law, Seattle Mariner third baseman, Quinn Douglas, baseball hero.

There was nothing about the job description that appealed, though.

“The car is here,” he said, noting the black four-wheel-drive truck pulling up.

“So what shall I tell Dad? That you’ll report back?”

“Alice, I’m here for me. I’m looking for investment opportunities for me.”

“You’re getting into property, too?”

“I’m looking for investments that make sense to me. This one is close to home—”

“It’s five hours from your family, across the Tetons. I wouldn’t call it convenient.”

“I have a house four hours from here, and I like driving.”

“Dad says they are in deep. They’re not going to survive this year. You don’t want to take on something like that. You could lose your shirt.”

“I’m not looking to buy them. I’m looking to invest in them. Huge difference.”

“Dad wants them. Don’t undermine him.”

“Peter Pace, the owner of Little Teton, is an old friend. I’m not going to stand by and let him go bankrupt if I can help.”

“You played minor league ball with him. You barely knew him.”

“We were roommates in single A ball. I knew him quite well.”

“But that was years ago. Don’t throw your money away. Dad says—”

“Your dad is smart. He is. But his way isn’t always the right way, Alice. We both know that. Goodbye.”

Quinn hung up before she could reply and ground his teeth together. This was the part he couldn’t stomach. Alice might be beautiful and smart and well connected, but she didn’t understand that he came from a very different family, with different values. And maybe his parents had died when he was a teenager, but he was old enough to have internalized those values. People mattered. Kindness mattered. Integrity mattered.

Alice had a good side, and he admired her immensely for being ambitious and hardworking, but he wasn’t ever going to be able to peel her away from Seattle, and he had family in Montana and it was his dream to one day return to Montana full time. When he broached the subject to Alice in early July, she recoiled, rejecting the idea of ever living in Montana permanently, and he suddenly had clarity on their relationship.

He could love someone, but it didn’t make the relationship right.

He could want the best for someone, but it didn’t mean that person was his person.

And so instead of proposing, during the July All-Star Break, he broke up with her. It had been five months since he ended the relationship but she was still hanging on, determined to get him back.

He had no plans to get back together with her. Ever. She was a great woman. She just wasn’t his woman.

Charity had been worried that forecast of snow would make the drive over the Teton Pass treacherous, but her seven-year-old Subaru handled the roads beautifully, and yes, the snow fell steadily, but there was no wind and her windshield wipers did a great job of scraping the window clean, keeping her view clear.

She’d armed herself with a thermos of coffee and mentally prepared herself for a long drive, but even with a stop for gas, she’d made it in less than four and a half hours, delighted to arrive at the privately owned Little Teton Resort before dark.

Parking her car out front in the area marked for reception, Charity headed into the lodge to check-in. The split-log lodge, built in the late 1960s, was more practical than luxurious, but the soaring ceiling featured sturdy beams, a fragrant Christmas tree in the corner, dark green garland swags over the various doorways, and an enormous wreath with a jaunty red bow over the stacked stone fireplace. The building’s design was more utilitarian than some of the fancier lodges over the mountain in Jackson Hole, but the decorations were cheerful and inviting.

Check-in at the front desk was easy. She gave them Trisha’s name and ID Trish had given her, and the friendly reception clerk handed over a key, a map of the property, and a welcome packet for the Little Teton fam.

“There’s a welcome reception tonight for all the travel agents. The reception will be in this building upstairs in the Fireside Room.” The clerk opened the map and drew some Xs here and there, showing Charity where the Fireside Room was, and then where to park, and how to find her room as Charity wouldn’t be in the main lodge, but in Aspen Lodge, one of the adjacent buildings.

The clerk leaned forward and whispered, “You’re in my favorite building. It has the best coffee and chocolate in all of Little Teton Village. They have morning bakery items too, but they sell out quickly, so if you like a great chocolate croissant, go early.” She glanced around and then dropped her voice even lower. “And maybe best of all, Seattle sportswriter Douglas Quincy is in the Aspen Building, too, on the ground floor, and he’s gorgeous. As well as single. I know, because I asked.”

“Thank you, but no,” Charity answered with a rueful shake of her head. “I’m not looking for love. I’ve sworn off men until the new year.”

“Why?”

“Penance for making bad decisions.” Charity scooped up the paperwork and room key. “But thanks for the tip on the chocolate. Fortunately, I have not given sweets up.”

Charity headed back outside to move her car. It was dark now and lights were coming on, reflecting brightly off the freshly fallen snow. She drew a deep breath, inhaling the crisp cold air, excited to be at the Little Teton for the next five days. It had been a long time since she’d done something just for fun.

Using her map, Charity found her way to the lot behind the two-story Aspen Lodge and parked in one of the many open spaces. As she turned her engine off, she frowned as she surveyed the virtually empty parking lot. It was too quiet. Indeed, when she’d turned down the small Main Street she thought the entire ski town looked quiet. Low numbers had been a problem for the resort and that was why the Pace family had poured money into Little Teton, trying to refresh the resort and ski runs, but the word didn’t seem to have gotten out yet.

Charity swung her backpack filled with books onto her shoulders and then lugged her big suitcase out of the trunk of her old Subaru, glad no one could see her mammoth suitcase. Winter clothes and snow boots took up a lot of room and then she also wanted to bring some cute clothes for the indoor activities. Just because she was single, didn’t mean she couldn’t still feel pretty.

One of the wheels on the suitcase no longer rolled, so she half carried, half dragged the case through the snow toward the lodge entrance. Yellow lamps made everything glow and she drew a deep breath, surprisingly excited to be here.

She’d never been to Jackson Hole, or any of the resorts on this side of the Grand Tetons. It wouldn’t be hard to appear enthusiastic for the fam trip because she really did want to learn about the resort and runs. Charity was determined to take great notes back so Tricia could sell Little Teton to her customers and everyone would be happy.

The backpack straps slid down her shoulders to her arms as she wrested the suitcase over a patch of ice.

“Let me help you,” a deep male voice said from behind her, reaching an arm past her to lift the large case. “You’ve got your hands full.”

“Thank you,” she answered breathlessly, pushing the straps of the backpack up and then a tendril of hair out of her eyes to get a better look at him because first impression was, well, impressive. Second impression was just as positive. He was tall and fit and ruggedly good-looking with shaggy, dark blond hair, scruff on his square jaw, and high hard cheekbones.

“That’s a big suitcase,” he said, opening the front door and holding it for her, before following with the bag.

“A girl has to have options,” she answered with a smile, glancing around the interior. The lobby of Aspen was small, but cozy, with two sets of hunter-green leather chairs, a fire crackling in the stacked stone hearth, and a collection of pine trees in the corner covered in tiny white lights. Huge glass jars filled with candy canes and peppermints decorated the mantel while a white wooden reindeer with a green wreath around its neck filled the low coffee table.

She nodded approvingly, backpack sliding off her shoulder once more. “I wasn’t sure what to expect but this is cute.”

“You’ll like the rooms. They’ve obviously spent a lot of money trying to make it appealing and I think they’ve succeeded.”

She gave up trying to keep the backpack on her shoulder and just let it slide to her feet. “Are you here for the travel agent trip?”

“I am, but I’m not a travel agent. I’m a writer.”

So this was the sportswriter. The desk clerk had called him gorgeous, and he was. “Tricia Thorpe,” she said shyly, extending her hand.

“Douglas Quincy,” he replied, his big hand engulfing hers, fingers closing around hers.

His palm was so warm, and the touch of his skin sent a little jolt of electricity shooting up her arm. Charity quickly retracted her hand, and rubbed it on the back of her coat, trying to erase the tingling sensation. She’d have to be careful around Douglas. He was exactly what she didn’t need, not at this point in her chaotic, confusing life. “Where’s home for you?” she asked.

“Seattle, Washington.”

“Oh, then you’re the one to ask about coffee. I’ve heard there is a great coffee place in this building. Have you seen it?”

“You’ll find the little café down that hall,” he said, pointing to the left. “Elevators and rooms are to the right, and the heated pool is out the door down that little hall.”

She flashed what she hoped was a confident smile. “Great. Well, I’d better get settled.”

“You’ll be at the welcome reception?”

Her pulse sped up, double time. “See you there.”

Quinn watched Tricia disappear down the hallway with her massive suitcase and knapsack, her long blonde ponytail swinging.

She was pretty, really pretty, with a wide, uncertain smile and blue eyes that held more than a hint of wariness in them. Her suitcase looked as if he it hadn’t been used in a long time, and her knapsack belonged to a day hiker rather than a world traveler. Quinn suspected she didn’t get out and travel as much as her customers. If that was true, he was glad she was here. He didn’t know why, but she struck him as someone in need of a break, and maybe some fun.

Quinn hadn’t come for fun. When Peter Pace had reached out to Quinn about potentially investing in Little Teton, Quinn’s immediate thought had been no. He didn’t ski due to a clause in his contract, but it hadn’t been a huge loss as he’d liked to ski as a boy, but it had never been a passion. Baseball had always been his thing, and he’d been lucky to turn it into a lucrative career.

But after thinking about Peter’s request a bit more, Quinn at least owed Peter the opportunity to show him what he’d done in Wyoming, which was why Quinn was here now, under the name Douglas Quincy. He wanted to see if there was a way he could help, but he wouldn’t know the answer to that until he’d been here for the week.

That evening, Charity spotted Douglas the moment she entered the meeting room off the main lodge’s lobby. He was the tallest person in the room, and incredibly easy on the eyes. He was also circled by a large group of women who seemed to find him utterly charming.

Charity smiled to herself and went to the beverage table to grab a bottle of water but then spotted the red and white wine and decided, a glass of red would be really lovely about now. She wasn’t exactly nervous being here, but she was out of her element.

As she sipped her wine, she glanced around the room. From the way it’d been set up, she gathered that there would be a presentation. Two rows of chairs faced a podium and screen at one end of the room, while tables of food and drink were at this end.

She snagged some of the skewered meat sticks and cheese cubes before heading toward the chairs. If Tricia was here, she’d mingle with the other agents, but Charity didn’t have Tricia’s confidence. But then, Tricia did these familiarizations all the time as hotels and airlines used the free trips as a way to show off new airplane routes or properties, and Marietta Travel might be small, but Paradise Valley was filled with wealthy people who could afford to go where they wanted, whenever they wanted.

A shadow stretched over her. She glanced up to discover the sportswriter at her side, smiling. His smile was a thing of perfection—straight white teeth, great jaw, lovely mouth.

“Are you saving this row of seats?” he asked, gesturing to her row. “Or can you spare one for me?”

She tore her gaze from his mouth up to his eyes. Those were beautiful, too. He had not been shortchanged in the looks department. “I think I can spare a chair.”

He sat down next to her and extended long, muscular legs. His legs were so long, his all-weather boots were hidden beneath the seat in front of him. “The ladies I just met are all from the West Coast, three from California, one from Oregon and another from Vancouver. They’re very excited to be here.”

“It’s certainly a cute place,” she answered.

“They hit the Ice Shack for dinner and recommended the fondue there. Actually, they raved about the cheese and a chocolate fondue.”

She was amused by this conversation. Did big, muscular men like fondue? “I don’t think I’ve ever had fondue.”

“Never?”

She shook her head and sipped her wine. “Are you a fondue fan?” she asked innocently.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a fan, but it’s a fun thing to do on a ski trip. Do you ski?”

“I can get down the mountain but it’s not particularly pretty. More survival skiing than anything.”

She was rewarded with a laugh, and the deep, husky appreciative sound burrowed inside of Charity, warming her. He really was incredibly attractive, and it wasn’t just his looks—which were exceptional—but it was his smile and laugh and the way he just seemed so much larger than life. More real, more alive somehow.

“Since you’re not a travel agent, why are you here?” she asked, crossing her legs and opening her notebook. “Are you doing an article on ski resorts, or are you writing specifically about this one? What’s the scoop?”

“I know the owner here. The resort needs publicity, and I thought I’d see if there was some way I could help them out.”

“That’s nice of you.”

His broad shoulders shrugged. “I try to be nice.”

She had a weakness for a man with a sense of humor, and he definitely had one. “I confess I don’t really know a lot about Wyoming resorts.” She lowered her voice so no one else would hear. “In fact, this is my first time here. I didn’t even know that Little Teton existed.”

“Jackson Hole gets most of the attention. Then for those who want to ski this side of the mountain, they usually hit Grand Targhee. Even though Little Teton Resort and the Grand Targhee were built just five years apart back in the sixties, the Grand Targhee was just managed better, and found their customers, and kept them. Little Teton passed from one owner to another, and each owner did less and less to take care of the place. Peter Pace, the new owner, has poured money into this resort but they don’t have a lot of bookings and they can’t afford to go through the winter without revenue.”

“Which is why we’re all here.”

He nodded. “I’m a little worried, though, as Peter can’t compete with Jackson Hole, at least, not with those who want trendy and luxury. This place isn’t going to be for the jet-setters who want to be seen.”

“Not everyone wants to be seen. I know I’ve only just arrived, but I’d think it’d appeal to those who want great snow and the authentic Rocky Mountain ski experience.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how family friendly they are,” he added.

She nodded as a pair of women squeezed past them to sit down in their row. Others were taking chairs in the row ahead of them.

“Have you gone on a lot of fam trips?” he asked.

“No, this is my first.”

“So why this one?”

She glanced up into his handsome face with the piercing blue eyes and didn’t know why she felt compelled to be honest. Maybe it was because the past few weeks had been so hard, or maybe it was the relief of being someone new, somewhere new. “I needed a break, and this seemed to be the perfect change of scenery. Work and vacation all in one.”

“Is travel that hectic this time of year?”

“No, just my life right now.” She made a face. “I have inadvertently become the queen of bad decisions.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

He waited a moment, eyes narrowed as his gaze swept her face before lingering on her rueful smile. “What’s the most recent bad decision?” he asked.

Charity hated the sudden ache in her chest. It was so stupid to let Greg hurt her and she forced a shrug, not wanting to let Douglas know just how bruised she felt. “Turns out my boyfriend wasn’t as committed to me as he let me believe.”

“What a schmuck. You’re better off without him.”

“I agree. Unfortunately, we work together so it’s extra uncomfortable.” She shook her head. “I should have known better. There’s a reason why they tell you not to date anyone from work.”

“Hopefully, he’s just another agent and not your boss.”

It took Charity a moment to process what he meant and then she grimaced. “Not my boss, thank goodness. I’ve made some mistakes in my time, but thankfully have never made that one.”

Conversation was curtailed by the appearance of a man at the podium. For the next ten minutes they watched a video about the history of skiing in Wyoming and the creation of the Little Teton Resort in the Grand Teton Mountains. The short film used old photographs and some home movie clips to convey the history of the resort, before seguing into the new owners’ vision for Little Teton, and the developments they’d done since acquiring the resort two years ago. By the time the film was over, Charity wished she was a real travel agent who could send the resort dozens of guests.

“That was really interesting,” she said to Douglas as the lights went back on and they were all excused to go enjoy the rest of their evening. “I loved the film, too. I’m glad they’ve added it to their website. I’ll have everyone in the office watch it when I return.”

They stepped out of their row so everyone else could escape. Resort staff were stacking the platters and collecting dirty dishes from a tray in the corner.

“What are your plans for the rest of the evening?” Douglas asked, as she added her empty wineglass to one of the big trays.

“Go back to my room and read.”

“Read?”

She slipped her notebook into her purse. “I love to read.”

“What kind of books?”

“Romance,” she said a little defiantly, waiting for him to make fun of her.

He didn’t, although the corner of his mouth lifted and his blue eyes gleamed. “Really?”

“Yes, really. I love that they always end happy. I love that in a romance the woman is just as important as the hero. In fact, I think she is the hero.” Charity lifted her chin, expression challenging, again waiting for him to make a smart remark, but he just gave her another smile, creases fanning from his eyes.

“I’m not going to fight with you. We all have different ways to relax. I play Xbox. I even carry the console and controller in my suitcase when traveling. My girlfriend wasn’t a fan, so I tried to play only when on the road, but sometimes it was the best way for me to unwind and unplug, necessary in my line of work.”

“So we all have a guilty pleasure.”

“Exactly. What was your boyfriend’s? Do you remember?”

“Baseball.”

“He played?”

“No. He’s a die-hard Cubs fan. He had one of those sports packages and he’d watch almost every single game on TV, and baseball has a lot of games.”

“Yes, I know.”

“What was your girlfriend’s guilty pleasure?”

“Shopping,” he said without hesitation. “She was the very definition of a shopaholic. But she could afford it so I’m not judging.”

“Wow. Lucky. That’s one thing I don’t do. I was raised in a family that didn’t have very much, and it’s still pretty tight.”

“Travel agents don’t earn a lot, do they?”

Charity thought of all the fun opportunities Tricia did have, working in her industry. “But there are lots of perks. Like this one. Being here.” She glanced around and realized they were the only two left in the room that weren’t staff. “I guess we should let them clean up without having to work around us.”

“I know you’ve got your book waiting for you in your room,” he said, as they stepped into the hall, “but I’m going to check out the Ice Shack and their incredible cheese fondue. Want to join me? We each have a dinner voucher and we can use it in any of the resort restaurants.”

Douglas was handsome and smart and very appealing. She was enjoying his company a little more than she should. But this wasn’t a dinner date; it was business. She was networking. “I think it’s time to try my first fondue.”

End of Excerpt