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Holiday Smith closed her eyes and inhaled the scents of the season—chocolate and cinnamon tinged with an undertone of desperation. Shoppers were packed five deep at the counter of the patisserie, everyone flushed and shifting their shopping bags from arm to arm as they tried to catch the attention of the counter staff. Holiday felt a bead of sweat trickling down under her jacket and scarf, but adrenaline surged as she caught a server’s eye: Victory is nigh.
“Hi, I’ll take the Bûche de Noël cake, please.” She had to yell over the din of the crowd.
The server shook his head and turned up both hands in a shrug. “We just ran out.”
Her surge of adrenaline soured into panic. “What? But I need it. Please, it’s urgent.”
“Come back tomorrow morning,” the server advised. “We usually run out of them by noon this time of year.”
Holiday fumbled in her handbag for her wallet. “I’ll pay double. Triple! Name your price.”
“Lady, I told you, we’re out. But if you’re that freaked out—”
“Try asking that guy over there.” The server pointed out a tall man in a black overcoat heading toward the exit. “He bought the last one.”
Holiday nodded her thanks over her shoulder as she dodged and weaved through the throngs of crazed Christmas shoppers. “Excuse me. Excuse me!”
The man didn’t hear her. Or at least, he pretended not to.
“Hey! You with the Bûche de Noël! Freeze!”
He did, with his hand on the brass push bar and one foot poised to hit the slushy doormat.
“Thank you, sir. I need a quick word with you.” The outdoor air blasted in, chilly and damp against her overheated cheeks.
The man turned around and Holiday took his measure in a nanosecond—good-looking, late thirties, expensive haircut, purposeful stride. Kind eyes.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“No.” She summoned her sweetest smile. “But you sure would be doing me a favor if you’d let me buy that cake from you.”
He clutched the white cardboard pastry box a bit closer to his chest. “I’m bringing this to a dinner party tonight.”
She nodded. “You know what else is great for dinner parties? Tiramisu.”
“But this is a special cake, as you’re obviously aware.”
“Oh, I’m aware. The finest French chocolate, fresh berries, and edible gold leaf on the ‘bark.’” She swiped through her phone until her banking app came up. “I’ll give you double what you paid for it. You can come back tomorrow before noon and get a fresh one.”
He glanced out at the pedestrians bustling by on Amsterdam Avenue, clearly in a hurry to join them. “Why can’t you come back tomorrow?”
“Because I need to present this cake to an editor-in-chief downtown in two hours.” Holiday pointed to the box in his hands. “I’m going to ask for a huge favor and I need to ply her with baked goods.”
He paused. “What’s the favor?”
“Is that really relevant?”
“It is if you’re trying to coerce me out of a cake I already bought and paid for.”
She motioned him to come closer and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “I’m going to ask the editor to get me a signed copy of a novel written by an author who hasn’t made any public appearances in ten years. Total recluse. This editor bought his first book fifteen years ago, and she’s the only person who can get in touch with him. I read an interview with her in Publishers Marketplace, and she mentioned that the Bûche de Noël from this bakery is her favorite dessert on Earth. And very hard to get.”
“Who’s the author?”
She glimpsed the curiosity in his eyes, and she knew she had him. “I’ll tell you if you hand over the cake. What do you say?”
He wavered, his fingers tightening around the pastry box.
“Listen. I can tell you’re very busy and important, and frankly, so am I. Neither of us has time for chitchat and, also, we’re screwing up the line.” She averted her gaze from the customers glowering at them. “Let’s make a deal and be on our way.”
One corner of his mouth tugged up in a smile. “All right, you’re on.”
Holiday opened her Venmo account and braced herself for the hit her petty cash fund was about to take.
“But you can keep your money,” he said. “I give you the cake, you give me your phone number.”
Her head snapped up. “Seriously?”
“You wanted to negotiate. I’m negotiating.” His smile amped up into a grin. “Let’s meet again when we do have time for chitchat.”
Holiday brushed back her hair and fluttered her eyelashes just a bit. “If you insist.”
“I insist. Say, dinner tomorrow night? You can tell me how it went with the bakery bribes at the publishing house.”
She stifled a sigh and stopped fluttering—both inside and out. “I wish I could, but I’m booked tomorrow night.”
Her refusal only spurred his determination. “How about Friday, then?” he countered. “Or Saturday? I have three holiday parties coming up this weekend—I’ll tell you all about them and you can take your pick.”
The sweet smells of the bakery gave way to a note of bitterness as she extracted a business card from her pocket. “That sounds amazing, and I’d love to go . . . but I’m booked solid for the next week.”
He glanced down at her name, number, and job title. “‘Christmas Concierge’?”
“That’s right.” She eased the bakery box out of his grasp. “I track down hard-to-find gifts for the most discerning clients all over the world.”
He gave her his full attention. “Like who?”
“So you can find anything?” he pressed.
“Anything. Wishes granted from the heart, presented with panache, and delivered on time. Guaranteed.”
He glanced down at his suit and tie, clearly realizing that he had lived his life all wrong. “That’s a real job?”
“So says my accountant.”
“And your real name is Holiday?”
She nodded. “It was clearly meant to be. And again, I am so sorry because I’d love to stay and talk, but I have an editor to bribe.” She ducked past him and out to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“What about dinner?” He fell into step beside her.
She paused and turned to face him so she could scrutinize his expression. “We’ll have to take a rain check until January second.”
And there it was—the flicker of dismissal and disinterest. Even though it was already the end of December, so much was packed in between now and New Year’s that January second might as well be six months away. The moment he realized she couldn’t accompany him to his many parties, his interest pivoted from the personal to the professional.
“You know, I’ve been looking for something special for my parents,” he ventured. “Do you think—”
“Sorry, I’m booked solid for the rest of this season. Email me and we can get you on the waitlist for next Christmas.” She nodded in sympathy at his evident dismay. “What can I say? I’m a woman in demand.”
He shook his head. “This is not how I saw this conversation going.”
“You and me both.” She straightened up and resumed walking toward the subway station. “But thanks for the cake.”
“I’ll be following up on that rain check on January second,” he called after her.
“You have my number.” She clutched the pastry box close and dashed for the stairs leading down to the subway. “Happy holidays!”
He yelled something in reply, but his voice was lost amid the chatter of the crowd and the clatter of the express train barreling down the tracks.
“You got it.” Nora ran her hand over the cover of the hardback novel. “You actually got it.”
“Don’t sound so surprised. Was there ever any doubt?” Holiday took the book back from her sister, rewrapped the acid-free tissue paper, and tucked it safely into her suitcase. Her apartment looked clean and minimalist to the point of being sparse—probably because it was more of a home base than a true home. She had bought the two-bedroom in a fancy northern Virginia high-rise as an investment and a place to crash between gift quests. Nora was forever bringing over throw pillows and scented candles in a futile attempt to cozy the place up, and Holiday didn’t have the heart to discourage her. But the fact was, no matter how many fanciful Christmas gifts she procured, Holiday would always be a pragmatist with nary a scrap of cozy in her DNA. Hence, the northern Virginia address—close to her family, easy access to an international airport, and only occasional snow delays during the crucial months of November and December.
Nora sipped from her glass of pinot noir. “Was there ever any doubt that you could weasel your way all the way to a nonforged signature from Benny Bruneto? The guy who makes J. D. Salinger look like a cruise director? Uh, yeah. I had doubt.”
Holiday threw her a saucy wink. “They call me the Wish Granter.”
“And you met a hot guy?”
She waved that away. “Yeah, but I’m never going to hear from that guy again.”
“I bet you’ll hear from him.” Nora curled up on the sofa and tucked her feet under her legs.
Holiday smiled. “Bless your delusional little heart.”
“Why is that so delusional?” Nora demanded. “If he bequeathed you his bûche, he must be seriously smitten.”
“How many times have I been down this road?” Holiday threw up her hands. “Men don’t like being abandoned this time of year. They want a date for the cocktail parties and family dinners and office gatherings.”
“Don’t generalize,” her sister scolded. “I’m sure there are guys out there who couldn’t care less if their girlfriends are out of town for—”
“All of November and December?” Holiday finished.
“Well, I have yet to find one of those guys.” Holiday helped herself to a sip of her sister’s wine. “And it’s a shame, because this guy really was cute. And polite. And funny.” She paused. “Plus, given the quality of his suit, I’d be willing to bet that his office party is going to be really swanky, with free-flowing top-shelf champagne and gourmet hors d’oeuvres.”
“I know how you love hors d’oeuvres,” Nora said.
“I do love them.” Holiday sat on the sofa next to her sister. “But no. He’ll go to the swanky parties by himself and some other woman will scoop him up and the two of them will live happily ever after, curling up by the fireside and eating Bûche de Noël every Christmas Eve.”
Nora swatted her with the pillow. “Or he’ll call you on January second.”
Holiday didn’t even deign to respond to that. “The good news is, I don’t have time to worry about phone calls that will never come. I’m on a plane first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Back to New York?”
“Iowa,” Holiday corrected. “Pray for no weather delays in Cedar Rapids.”
“What’s in Cedar Rapids?”
“A Dandie Dinmont terrier puppy. I’ve got to pick him up from the breeder and deliver him to his new home in Los Angeles.”
“I’ve never heard of a Dandie Dinmont terrier.” Nora started Googling on her phone.
“Neither had I. You know why? Because they’re incredibly hard to find. There are literally more pandas in the world right now than Dandie Dinmont terriers.”
“Then how . . .?” Nora clapped her hand to her heart as a photo of an adorable, fluffy puppy materialized.
“Three days on the internet, dozens of phone calls, and filling out a puppy application that was basically the equivalent of applying to Harvard.” Holiday winced at the memory. “I told my client I would do it, so I did. The Wish Granter never gives up.”
“I guess not. Good lord.” Nora circled back to the more important questions: “So when you met with the editor, did you get to have any of the Bûche de Noël?”
“Yeah. It was delicious, but not as delicious as Mom’s cinnamon rolls are going to be.”
Now it was Nora’s turn to give a patronizing smile. “Bless your delusional little heart.”
Holiday turned her face away. “What?”
“You and I both know—we alllll know—that you’re not going to be home for Christmas.”
“Yes, I am!” Holiday got to her feet and zipped up her suitcase with more vigor than necessary. “This year is different.”
Nora took a beat and let Holiday’s words sink in. “You say that every year.”
“Yeah, but this time it’s true. I cut back on my bookings this year.”
“Mm-hmm.” Nora put down her wineglass and folded her arms over her chest.
“I’m not lying! I am going to be there Christmas morning, shoving cinnamon rolls into my gob. I pinky promise.” Holiday extended her little finger.
Nora refused to join pinkies. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Just be honest and say you’ll roll in on the twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, as per usual.” She held up her palm. “It’s okay, we still love you. We’ll keep the tree up.”
“You’re going to loot my stocking yet again, aren’t you?”
Her sister grinned. “Consider it your late fee.”
“You’ll see,” Holiday vowed. “I’m going to be in Mom and Dad’s living room, looting your stocking before you’re even awake on Christmas morning.” Her cell phone chimed. She glanced at the name on caller ID and headed for the hallway. “Hang on, I have to take this.”
When she reentered the bedroom a few minutes later, her sister read her expression immediately.
“You’re missing Christmas again, aren’t you?”
Holiday took a slow, deep breath. “No.”
“I just have to take a quick detour to Maine after Los Angeles.”
“A little pitstop.” Nora’s eye roll was even more dramatic this time. “Maine and Virginia are practically next door.”
“It’s . . . I can’t say no.” Holiday put her hand on the wall to quell the sudden feeling of dizziness. “I owe this client whatever she asks for.”
“And she’s asking for Maine?”
“Someplace called Alemos Island, to be exact.”
Nora was already online and researching. “Alemos Island? Oh, here we are, right off the coast. Current temperature is like absolute zero. You better pack a down parka and some furry earmuffs.”
Fear seeped into Holiday’s stomach. “Do you think it’ll snow?”
“Yes,” Nora stated decisively. “Maine plus December equals snow. It’s basic math.”
“Oh no.” Holiday sank onto the sofa next to her sister. “How much, do you think? Do you think there’ll be a blizzard?”
“It’s too soon to say.” Nora patted the sofa cushion to indicate that Holiday should join her. “Don’t worry, though. You’ll be okay.”
Holiday remained braced against the wall. “I’ve heard that before. I can’t believe this is happening again.”
“It’s not,” Nora declared.
“But what if—”
Nora held up a single, stern index finger. “It won’t.”
Holiday got to her feet, tamped down her nerves, and tried to match Nora’s authoritative tone. “You’re right, everything will be fine. I’ll pack my parka. I’ll rent an SUV with four-wheel drive. I’ll check the weather religiously.”
“Absolutely. Nothing can stand in the Wish Granter’s way,” Nora said. “This time.”
“Amen, sister.” Holiday strode to the front closet to retrieve her winter coat. “And Nora?”
“In the immortal words of Bing Crosby, I will be home for Christmas.”
End of Excerpt