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Ivy Macpherson couldn’t remember who’d said it first, but as she pushed her way through the throngs crowding Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, she definitely agreed. You can’t go to hell without changing planes in Atlanta first.
The normally busy airport was packed even tighter with holiday travelers, which meant it was amateur hour as far as she could see. Haggard mothers running over people’s feet with their expensive strollers. Harried family men loaded down like mules with carry-on bags and the occasional Disney princess backpack. Toddlers breaking for free space like running backs after the snap. Bored, oblivious teens glued to their cell phones blocking the passageways.
She caught the weary eye of a TSA agent and gave the woman a sympathetic smile. That job wasn’t easy on the best of days, but during the week before Christmas, Ivy bet it could be downright ghastly. The noise alone would be enough to drive anyone mad.
Too bad she couldn’t have spent the holiday curled up in her cozy Brooklyn apartment. Okay, “cozy” was kind. It was a glorified studio with a stove the size of an Easy-Bake oven, but it was hers. And it was most decidedly not where she was headed—Dogwood Mountain, North Carolina, the tiny town where she’d spent most of her life. The one she’d been trying to escape ever since.
Dogwood Mountain wasn’t a bad town. It had a certain charm, she had to admit, with its quirky shops and historic inns, all set in the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains. It was the kind of town that drew thousands of tourists. They blocked the sidewalks in summer and crammed the twisty, two-lane roads in the autumn during “leaf-peeping” season. But in the winter, when all the tourists left, only the stalwart remained to brave the bitter winds and leafless trees, the gray skies for days on end, and the endless quiet broken only by winds soughing through the pines and their short-needled cousins, the hemlocks. Then, it felt more like torture.
But it was Christmas, and Christmas meant family and obligation and slogging through the Atlanta airport to pick up a rental for the drive up to Dogwood Mountain. It wasn’t like she could avoid it when her mama had brought her into the world on Christmas Day. And she certainly couldn’t beg off when her mama shared that birthday with her and gave her a name that fit with hers, thanks to “The Holly and the Ivy,” a madrigal that nobody sang anymore except in England. She guessed. She’d never been to England at Christmas.
The train heading from her concourse to ground transportation was packed as tight as a pre-Marie Kondo closet of puffy coats and scarves and beanies in a dizzying array of colors. Ivy winced as a businessman stepped on the toe of her lined winter boot. The wince was mental as well. This really wasn’t the best timing for her to be out of town, even if it was Christmas week. Right now, work, not family, was Ivy’s priority.
Her company, Scoop Media, started as a blog but soon grew into a multifaceted media company thanks to Instagram, YouTube, and a quotable Twitter feed. The original celebrity gossip and online quizzes helping people identify which odd Victorian piece of flatware they might be—lemon fork for Ivy…perfectly designed for a thick skin and a tart interior—now included articles and think pieces on society, pop culture, and politics.
It was no secret in their midtown offices that Scoop’s founder wanted it to go big, maybe even take it public. Last week’s staff meeting officially revealed the worst-kept secret in New York media.
“Scoop is undergoing a total realignment,” her boss, Wendy, announced. “All divisions will be folded into one of three missions—life, work, or world.” Quizzical looks and raised eyebrows swept the table.
Wendy continued, “Each mission will be assigned its own guru, who will choose a limited number of supports. All current divisions at Scoop will be aligned with one of the key missions or combined with another division.” Into the buzz of speculation that followed, she dropped the bomb.
“The total number of staffers will also be reduced.”
Ivy was a good writer with a skill in producing great stories. What she didn’t have was a bombshell contribution that would make her an obvious choice for a promotion.
She heard a commotion off to her right, and a crowd of young women poured around the corner, chattering and snapping photos with their phones. In the center of the throng, flanked by two burly men in suits and sunglasses, stood Julian Wolf, A-list movie star and certified hottie of the century.
Ivy knew a ton about Julian already—everyone in her business did—but the reality was something else. Broad shoulders, thick, dark blond hair, massive physique he famously spent four hours a day perfecting. He performed the celebrity dance, smiling and nodding at the crowds and posing for selfies.
Ivy fired off a couple of shots with her smartphone and forwarded them on. Almost immediately, her phone rang.
“Is that who I think it is?” Jada Graham demanded. Whip-smart and matter-of-fact, Jada had shown Ivy around on Ivy’s first day at Scoop, and now she was Ivy’s closest friend in New York.
“In the flesh.”
She heard clattering over the line and pictured Jada, lips pursed below her signature bright headscarf and luxurious springy natural curls, typing furiously to search for information on the current People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. “What’s he doing in Atlanta?” Jada asked.
“Good question. Last I heard, he was supposed to be jetting off to Europe for the holidays.” Ivy stretched up on her tiptoes to focus on Julian, who stood an easy head and shoulders over most of the crowd, his perfect teeth blinding in his tanned face.
Ivy frowned. Something was off.
“Earth to Ivy.”
“Shh.” She watched more closely as Julian continued to smile and wave. “Listen, J, I’m going to have to call you back.”
“Okay, fine. Toss me aside like a falafel wrapper.”
“I love you!”
“Whatever.” Jada hung up.
Ivy returned her attention to Julian and soon her uneasy feeling resolved into certainty.
That man wasn’t Julian Wolf. Those were Julian’s trademark sunglasses, the scruff of facial hair he’d grown for his last movie, and the designer messenger bag he took everywhere. But the smile was off—no bad-boy curl to one side—and the bag was looped over his left shoulder rather than his right.
Julian Wolf was left-handed. This man wasn’t.
Ivy considered this. The question wasn’t what Julian was doing in Atlanta, but what a decoy was doing in Atlanta pretending to be Julian. All she had to do was follow not-Julian and get her story.
She checked her Apple watch. The family was expecting her for dinner, but her plane had made good time. If she spent an hour or so or even a day trailing the decoy around Atlanta, she could make excuses and drive up later. Surely, the family would understand. They didn’t get why she was so all-fired ready to leave Dogwood Mountain, but they were always so happy to see her. They’d forgive her for being late. As long as she didn’t miss the mutual birthday celebration with her mother, she’d have some wiggle room.
A phone trilled nearby. She turned her head to see a tall man in a faded green army jacket jerk to a halt, his movement thwarted by the same growing frenzy around not-Julian as Ivy. He began fishing for the phone in of one of the deep pockets of his beat-up coat. Once he succeeded, the name on the screen elicited a wide smile.
Goosebumps prickled up Ivy’s arms. It had been a long time since a man had talked to her that way, and in that obvious tone of voice. But there was something more. Something vaguely familiar, like she should know this man, even though his thick beard and dark hair were completely unfamiliar.
Trying not to seem obvious, she stepped back as if impatient with waiting for the crowd to disperse, then sidled a little closer. She’d seen him somewhere. Did they go to school together? Had they been waiting for the same plane? Something.
And then he laughed, a warm, rich sound, and she knew.
Army Jacket was Julian Wolf.
Ivy glanced around, a little panicky. No way that laugh wasn’t recognized. But to her surprise, it didn’t even seem to register. Too many people too worried about collecting kids and bags and making it out of here with their sanity and belongings intact. Julian had managed to switch places with a decoy with no one the wiser—except her.
Ivy couldn’t hear his whole conversation, but it was obvious who was on the other end of the call. The tabloids and all their online counterparts had been abuzz the past several weeks once it got out that famously untamable Julian “Lone” Wolf had somehow been captured. And by a nobody! Not a virtual nobody starlet with incredible luck, but an actual, for real nobody. No one knew who she was. Julian was obviously off the market, but no one had been able to ferret out his mystery woman’s identity.
The goose bumps blossomed into a full-body tingle. If Ivy could find out who she was, there was no way Scoop could deny her a promotion. Ivy leaned over on one foot so she could hear him better but not appear obvious.
“A what?” he said. “A Velocirapture?”
Ivy’s heart accelerated. No way.
“Raspberries and chocolate I get. But caramel, too? That sounds like a lot,” he continued.
The Velocirapture Ivy knew was a decadent mix of buttermilk-chocolate pecan cake, fudge sauce, caramel, and raspberries, topped with homemade whipped cream and more pecans. And, yes, Julian, all of those toppings are essential. She also knew the Velocirapture was the signature dessert at the Brontosaurus Pub, a quirky brewpub housed in an old Sinclair gas station. She’d lost count of the number of times she’d been to the Brontosaurus, a beloved mainstay of her hometown.
“We’ll have to share one when I get there,” Julian was saying. “It should only be a couple of hours.”
Ivy suppressed a squeal. Julian Wolf’s mystery woman was in Dogwood Mountain! And right now, she was the only person in the world—besides Julian himself and his mystery woman—who knew.
An audible, loud groan of protest from the crowd surrounding Fake Julian burst out as the security team began to shepherd him through the atrium toward an exit. She was so distracted she nearly missed that Real Julian was headed out a door farther down the terminal.
“Shoot!” She snatched the handle of her purple suitcase and followed him at a distance she hoped was discreet enough for him not to notice.
The doors swished open and a blast of chilly, wet air curled around her. She shivered. The leaden skies dripped sleet onto the tangle of cars weaving toward the curb. Whistles and splashes merged with the roar of aircraft overhead. Her breath puffed out in clouds. Flashing lights to her left drew her attention; the atrium crowd had moved outside, now joined by a number of photographers. Fake Julian threw the crowd a final smile and ducked into a gleaming black Mercedes. She cut her gaze to the right and watched the beat-up army jacket move farther down the curb. Real Julian kept his head down, texting.
Ivy twitched. She was dying to talk to him, but one word would ruin everything. She was working on a plan when a gray car pulled up at the curb. Julian looked up from his phone and exchanged a brief conversation with the driver through the cracked-open passenger window. Then he opened a door, tossed the black duffel bag he was carrying into the back seat, and got in.
Ivy narrowed her eyes, but the car was too far down the curb for her to identify. It wasn’t a sedan, though—wagon? SUV? Clouds of warm exhaust made it hard to confirm or to read the license plate. It was missing the trademark peach, though. This tag was bluish. North Carolina plates.
Forget Atlanta. The car inching forward to merge into traffic was headed to Dogwood Mountain, she was sure of it. Ivy whooped with triumph and sprinted for the rental car counter. By the end of the week, she vowed, she’d have her story and a brand-new, exciting life.
End of Excerpt