Start reading this book:
Kristen Benz arrived at Mistletoe Chalet and knew she was in danger of falling in love.
She shouldered her small bag as she closed the door on her sturdy hatchback, ears stinging and nose pinching at the brisk air that accosted her. But the cold didn’t matter. Everything was so pretty!
Nestled against a mountainside, guarded by craggy, muscled peaks of granite, the chalet was everything she wanted a mountain lodge to be. It sprawled in gabled wings from an A-frame front, its roof jutting in sharp angles toward the sky, like the mountaintops surrounding it. River-rock walls gave it a sense of reliable permanence while accents of natural wood formed crossbeams and railed balconies.
Massive picture windows reflected the silvery-mauve light of growing dusk while inset lighting warmed the entrance to a welcoming, golden glow. A layer of snow sat as a thick, rich icing atop this wintry confection while colored Christmas lights reflected through the icicles dripping off its eaves.
In the final touch of magic, snowflakes fell like specks of glitter.
Even though she’d only seen the place online, and only from the outside, she had the oddest sense of homecoming. She drank in a bracing breath of evergreen and frost and thought, This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.
There were two sets of steps, but one had a sign that read, ‘Welcome to Mistletoe Chalet.’ She climbed that direction and knocked, then obeyed the sign on the door that said, Please come in.
Kristen hesitated with the door cracked.
A black nose poked out near her knee, trying to muscle the door fully open.
“Okay, I got him.” A girl of about twelve or thirteen drew the door open and backed up to let her in. She had ginger hair and glasses. Her wide smile of greeting revealed braces and dimples. She held the collar of a big, shaggy dog with hair falling over his eyes and paws like mops.
“Hi, I’m Sarah. This is Bonzo. He’s super friendly, but I just got him dried off. If I let him out, he’ll roll in the snow and I’ll have to start all over again.”
“And there’d be no snow left for the skiers?” Kristen guessed, closing the door behind her. She leaned over to let the dog smell her hand.
“Exactly!” Sarah let go of the dog and nudged him. “Go to your mat.”
He didn’t. He stayed and sniffed the laptop bag that Kristen let slide off her shoulder.
“I’m Kristen.” She offered her hand. “I’m starting work here tomorrow and, wow.”
She could hardly keep her bearings, there was so much to take in. The great room was topped by natural wood in its vaulted ceiling. Raw, polished wooden uprights held up the rail of the stairs and loft. The fireplace was more of the magnificent river rock from outside and the floor was slate. The feeling was rustic and welcoming, yet sophisticated. Modern pioneer. A home that was both luxurious and homey.
“We hear that word a lot.” Sarah grinned as she shook her hand. “Wendy is my stepmom. She took some guests to their room upstairs. She should be right back.”
Kristen couldn’t resist a peek through the open door next to them, into an empty office with a reception counter and a pair of comfortable-looking chairs in front of an unmanned desk.
“You can leave your boots on the mat and hang your coat there if you like.” Sarah pointed to a row of wooden pegs by the entrance door, then quickly moved a broom out of the way. “I’m still cleaning up from my party.”
“It’s your birthday?” Kristen shrugged out of her jacket and hung it.
“Last day of school before Christmas break. My class came skiing, but just for the morning. Then we played games.” She pointed to the stack of board games on the coffee table.
“That sounds fun.”
Kristen unlaced her boots and curled her socked toes against the tiles, anticipating it to be freezing, but discovered the floor had lovely, radiant heat.
Bonzo sniffed her toes, then gave her such an expectant look of, Let’s be best friends forever, she had to give him some love. When he padded away toward the fireplace, she straightened and took a longer look at her surroundings.
“This is really beautiful.”
“I know. I’m lucky to live here. I’ll go tell Wendy you’re here.” Sarah put her hand to the side of her mouth and said in a stage whisper, “Sometimes guests like to chat and she can’t get away.”
“Ah. I won’t keep you then.” Kristen gave a nod-wink.
Sarah chuckled and trotted up the stairs.
Kristen moved to the stone fireplace where Bonzo took up most of the mat in front of it. A burning candle on the mantel gave off a scent of cinnamon: spicy and sweet. Bonzo sniffed her feet again, but otherwise didn’t move.
She didn’t really need to warm up. The huge lounge was surprisingly comfortable, given the sub-zero temperatures outside and the high ceilings and abundance of windows.
A dark blue sectional sofa faced the fireplace. It was overstuffed and comfy-looking, long enough to seat a crowd. Colorful throws and pillows in splashes of rust and buttercup made it seem extra cozy and inviting.
Beneath the overhang of the loft, a table for twenty or so filled the dining area. Peering further, she saw a pair of French doors that led into what might have been a sunroom. The curtains were closed in there so it was hard to tell.
She glanced back at the main dining area, noting that only a few condiments stood on the blue-and-white runner. There weren’t any centerpieces or other adornments. The view offered all the beauty a diner needed. Kristen wanted to park herself at that table, sipping coffee as she gazed across the endless view of the valley.
Leaning, she saw a door on the other end of the dining area, one she presumed led to the kitchen. A chalkboard hung beside it listing what had likely been this morning’s breakfast: porridge, pancakes, bacon and eggs.
Dragging her gaze back to the lounge area, she noticed the photos that hung on the walls, all stunning wildlife against the dramatic mountain scenery.
Footsteps sounded on the loft. A woman who looked at least five years older than Kristen’s twenty-six came to the rail and smiled down at her. “Kristen?”
“That’s me.” She lifted a hand in a wave.
“I’m Wendy.” She came down the stairs and held out her hand. They were about the same average height and weight, but where Kristen had wavy brown hair and brown eyes, Wendy had a more Nordic look.
“You made good time. Welcome,” Wendy said.
“Thank you. I’m feeling like I won the lottery, getting to work here for a couple of weeks. This is so beautiful.”
“Oh, thank you.” Wendy sent a critical eye around the living area, expression growing exasperated. “I thought I’d have the Christmas decorations up by now, but Ted hasn’t had a chance to get them out yet. He had to fill in on the snowcat because our operator’s baby arrived early.”
“Oh?” Kristen thought she caught a brief glimmer of concern in Wendy’s expression, but Wendy was already waving to reassure her.
“She was just a couple of weeks early. They went home the next day and Mom and baby are doing great. But Daddy is off until January, which means I lost Ted to the tours sooner than I expected and things have snowballed—ha-ha—from there. I honestly didn’t think we’d find anyone when he suggested I see if I could hire someone to get us through Christmas. I’m running so far behind, I think I’m out in front!” She widened her eyes in overwhelm.
“Well, I’m here and ready to work.”
“Let me show you to your room first.” Wendy led Kristen into a spacious kitchen.
It was modern and bright with windowpane doors on the cupboards and a view over the sink of what she imagined was Wendy’s summer garden. The base of the island was made of round stones interspersed with cupboards and a marble slab sat on top. Copper pots and stainless-steel appliances marked this as a professional’s dream kitchen while quirky touches like a cracked, antique bread bowl on a shelf and a cluttered breakfast nook told of the family that lived here.
“It smells delicious in here.” The aroma of beef stew in the slow cooker competed with something yeasty.
“Thanks, but don’t let me scorch the buns. I’m one of those people who always forgets this is a hectic time of year, even though I resolve every January to start my shopping early and not be so scattered next time. I haven’t even bought the baking ingredients yet, let alone started making cookies. Thankfully, all the other moms brought potluck today for Sarah’s party. That door goes into the garage.”
Wendy pointed to the door against the back wall, then briefly pulled open the one that led beneath the overhang of the staircase, revealing stairs going down. “The basement. I’ll show you that later.”
She waved Kristen to follow her around to the stairs that led up from the kitchen to a small landing.
“This is the family area. Those are our bedrooms down there.” She waved down the hall, then opened a door off the landing. “This is your bathroom. Not very big, I’m afraid, but you’re the only one who will be using it.”
An angled shower stall had been shoe-horned behind a toilet and sink under a slanted ceiling, but it was surprisingly charming with a little frosted window, a couple of shelves, and wallpaper with ducks on it.
“It reminds me of something you’d see in a tiny house or on a boat.”
“Sarah picked out the wallpaper when she was younger. It’s cute, isn’t it? This is your room.” Wendy opened another door into a long, slant-ceilinged room over the garage. “This was a playroom for Sarah when she was little, so she could have friends over and make some noise without disturbing the guests. Now that she’s older, it’s become a bit of a storage shed, but Ted’s refinishing it as a bedroom, so Sarah can move in when—um.” Wendy blushed and hurried in ahead of Kristen. “When we need her room for a friend or family guest.”
“I imagine that would be handy.” Kristen bit back her smile, instantly suspecting by Wendy’s flustered glow that she might be carrying Sarah’s little brother or sister and wasn’t ready to reveal it yet. Kristen knew from her brother’s wife that couples often kept their special news under wraps for the first few months. She also remembered her sister-in-law being inexplicably distracted and occasionally overwhelmed throughout her pregnancy, but especially before she was showing.
“We have a flat over the cat shed where I stayed when I first came, but there are some issues there right now. Plus it’s a long walk when it’s cold. You’re only here a couple of weeks. This is more convenient for both of us. I’m sorry about the clutter.”
Wendy made a futile effort to straighten a card table where shopping bags were plopped next to fresh rolls of wrapping paper and colorful ribbons.
“I’ve been meaning to start the wrapping.” Wendy blew out a breath that lifted the wisps of hair from her forehead.
“No problem.” The room was long. Kristen had plenty of space without the table getting in her way. “Is this going to be a reading nook?” A bench with bookshelves beneath it was roughed in under a gable window. “If I was twelve, I would go crazy for this. Actually, I love it at twenty-six.”
“I’m working on a cushion and matching curtains. It’s a long way from finished. This will be her closet.” Wendy opened a door into what would still be a spacious walk-in after shelves, drawers and bars were installed.
“You think a teenager is going to hang her clothes?”
“We can dream,” Wendy said with determined optimism. “I’d rather contain the disaster behind a closed door than see everything on the floor, so it’s worth a try.” She faltered slightly. “Please don’t tell Sarah what we’re planning. It’s part of her Christmas present. She thinks she’s not allowed in here because of the wrapping table.”
“I won’t say a word. I wish I was going to be here to see it finished. It’s already too adorable for words.”
Kristen took in the bed with the patchwork quilt and the desk in the corner, then nudged aside the gingham curtain to peer out at the cabins that were part of Mistletoe Chalet’s accommodation offerings. Each was under a thick layer of snow and had a puff of smoke coming from its chimney.
“You guys have so much on the go. I can bring my luggage in later if there’s something I could do right now that would help you feel caught up.”
“You’re doing us a huge favor as it is, coming on short notice like this. And over Christmas?”
“You’ve done me the favor,” Kristen assured her. “I was at loose ends. I booked a vacation expecting to spend it with my parents, but they won a Christmas cruise from a local raffle. They’re flying to the Caribbean tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, that’s exciting!” Wendy lit up with interest.
“It is. They buy a ticket every year because it supports the local fire hall. They’ve always wanted to try both a cruise and a Christmas away from the snow. I’ve been telling them the last few years that if they want to go on a Christmas cruise, they should just book it and go. My brother and I have offered to pitch in to help pay for it, but Mom always said if it was meant to be, they’d win the fire hall raffle. They did. So I’m glad for them. Envious, of course,” she admitted, wrinkling her nose. “But they deserve it.”
“You couldn’t join them?”
“It was booked solid.” Kristen shrugged. “And this is my brother’s year with his wife’s family back east. I thought about canceling my vacation and working, but my replacement really needs the hours. Then I saw your ad.”
“I couldn’t believe someone with your experience at all those big hotels was willing to come here.”
“Have you looked around? Of course I jumped on coming here,” Kristen said with a chuckle. “Like I said in my email, I’m excited to see what it’s like to work in a family-run lodge, especially since I’m on my own this year. My job is great, but it’s kind of the same no matter what day it is. I wanted a more personal experience over the holidays.”
“We promise to treat you like family, then.”
“Thank you. I promise to pick up my socks and eat all my vegetables. But speaking of family, I should phone my mom and let her know I’ve arrived safely. She’ll want that peace of mind while she travels. And you might want to check your dinner rolls.”
“Yes! Thank you. Come downstairs after you’ve unpacked and settled in.”
Kristen fetched her luggage, then video-called her mother—and again had to talk her mother out of canceling her trip.
“We won’t be out of pocket. You can come home like you planned,” her mother said.
“Mom. This is something you and Dad have wanted a long time. I want you to go and enjoy yourselves. I’m fine. Mistletoe Chalet is gorgeous and the family seems really nice. Plus…” She lowered her voice even though her door was closed. “I think Wendy, my new boss, is pregnant.”
“She said something that makes me wonder if that’s why she decided to hire help. She seems both highly competent and kind of overwhelmed. Glowing and happy, but also freaked out.”
“The way your brother was when he found out they were expecting the first time?” her mother suggested dryly, making Kristen laugh.
“Yes. Exactly like that.”
“Well, I suppose it’s good she has you there, then. But I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too.”
“Oh, there’s Molly coming to say goodbye.” She looked left, toward the kitchen window where she would easily spot her neighbor cutting through the gate between their backyards. “She’ll have a houseful this year. All the kids are coming home.”
“And all the grandchildren. Even before we knew we’d be away, I told her not to let Sheryl and Carlos get a hotel. They’re going to stay here with their kids.”
“That sounds fun.” A pang of disappointment struck at missing out, but also a twinge of relief.
Then her mother spoke again, unintentionally pressing on old bruises with her teasing, “Finn is going to use your brother’s room.”
Kristen made a production of rolling her eyes. “Mom. That was a long time ago.” She and Finn had dated for one summer after she finished high school, but their moms had never given up on trying to throw them back together. “Tell Molly I said hello and I wish a merry Christmas to everyone.”
“I will. But I’m sure she would love for you to join them if you decided to come home after all.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” She suffered another pang, this one of nostalgia for all the times the Garretts had treated her like family. At one time, she had started to imagine she might become family, but that had been girlish romanticism on her part. “I’m okay here, Mom. Truly. You guys travel safe. Give Dad a hug for me.”
She ended her call, finished unpacking and came down to the kitchen in time to hear a huge clatter. She gave Wendy a bemused look.
“Reindeer on the roof? They sound like they’re coming through it.”
Wendy smiled and continued setting out wooden charcuterie platters on the island. “Ted just got back with the skiers. They’re putting away their equipment.” She pointed at the door she had shown Kristen earlier, the one that led to what Kristen realized must be a walk-out basement.
“Do they need help?”
“Ted has it down to a science. We help by staying out of his way.”
“They must be hungry after skiing all day.” Kristen looked with alarm at the jars of olives and gherkins, the sleeves of crackers and blocks of cheese that still had to be sliced and cubed before it was arranged on the platters. She quickly washed her hands.
“They usually go to their rooms to shower and change. I leave snack baskets and wine in their room for après-ski. They relax and trickle into the dining room when they get hungry for something more substantial. Some guests stay in their cabin and cook for themselves in their kitchenettes.”
“That must be hard to predict and cook for.” Kristen followed Wendy’s example and set a little ramekin of olives in the center of her board and built out from there.
“They book ahead for the meals, but I cook a lot of stews and casseroles that I can stretch easily if I have to.” Wendy winked.
Kristen had eaten a protein bar while she unpacked so her stomach wouldn’t be growling, but the aroma of bay leaves and allspice along with the freshly baked buns was homey and heavenly and made her hungry.
“I’ve only ever skied at a regular ski hill with chairlifts. What’s it like to go up by snowcat?” Kristen asked, glancing up from scooping jam into a ramekin.
“Most people expect it to be very dangerous and exciting, but the cat doesn’t go very fast. It’s a great way to access powder without the cost of helicopters, though. I haven’t, um, had a chance to get out myself this season, but you should go on your day off. We usually reserve a couple of seats for Sarah or other locals who can’t always book ahead.”
“Don’t you have to be an expert? I’ve skied a bit, but I don’t even own my own skis or boots. I wasn’t thinking about that when I applied, only about seeing what the work was like.”
“That’s funny. I assumed you must be an avid skier or you wouldn’t have been interested in this job. But that’s okay. Beginners can go up.”
Wendy nodded. “Ted and the other guides are really knowledgeable. They find the right terrain for every level. I would call myself a very average skier and I’ve always been comfortable with the slopes I’ve skied. Sarah’s very good. She boards and even if she’s with a group who are new to powder and trees, she always has fun. She helps with the guiding sometimes, especially if there are kids.”
“Especially if there are kids where?” Sarah asked, coming in with a fork that she dropped into the sink of soapy water. She fetched a clean one from the drawer.
“I was just saying you sometimes help with the guiding. You should go with Kristen on her day off,” Wendy suggested. “Show her around.”
“Oh, I’d love that,” Sarah said with a bright smile.
“What size are your shoes? You might be able to use my boots and skis,” Wendy offered.
“I haven’t even started work yet,” Kristen protested as she copied the way Wendy arranged a row of crackers in an S. “I certainly haven’t earned a day off.”
“But it’s part of our job to be able to tell people where the best skiing is,” Sarah said earnestly. “Dad says that’s also why we shouldn’t be shy about eating Wendy’s cooking.” She grinned at her stepmother as she stole a gherkin. “So we can recommend it honestly.”
“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” Kristen said, looking to the windows that were growing dark enough she couldn’t tell if snow was still falling. “I’m used to looking things up online for guests, rather than making a personal recommendation. Usually they want the nearest place for coffee, not necessarily the best. It turns into a script.”
“Oh.” Wendy wrinkled her nose. “That sounds tiresome.”
“I say the same thing so many times, I can’t help it.” Kristen took on a cheerful, helpful tone as she demonstrated. “There’s an Indian restaurant on the corner. If you want to walk a block further, there’s an all-day breakfast diner. Do you want to take a cab? Because the steakhouse is…” She rolled her eyes. “Just about any job has aspects that get boring, I suppose.”
“Not here. We always have something different going on, don’t we, Sugar Bear?” Wendy glanced at Sarah. “The conditions are always changing.”
“A lot.” Sarah agreed. “Depending on the weather and the time of year. Some of the worst places in November are the best in spring. The slope where my class went today turns into icy bumps unless we get lots more snow through Christmas. And the people are always different. I like that part.” Sarah held up the clean fork. “I just have to put this out and the table is set. What else do you need me to do?”
“Bonzo is fed?”
“That’s it for now. Thanks.” Instead of offering her hand for a high five, since she was still working with the food, Wendy offered an elbow.
Sarah met it with her own elbow and disappeared to set the fork, then came back to the breakfast nook. She slid into the booth seat that wrapped the table and opened what looked like a school binder, picking up her pen with her other hand.
“How do you have homework?” Wendy threw a puzzled glance at her.
“And why aren’t you waiting until the day before school starts?” Kristen teased. “The way I did when I was your age?” She looked up from wrapping strips of prosciutto around cubes of cheese and skewering a grape on the way to pinning the dried ham in place with a bamboo shoot.
Sarah’s expression suggested she’d been caught red-handed in some way. Her freckled face began to glow red. “It’s, um, a special project…”
“For Christmas?” Kristen guessed, forestalling the girl’s truly awful attempt to lie.
“Yes,” Sarah said, voice tilting upward. She darted a worried glance at Wendy who was smirking at Kristen across the platters they were almost finished filling.
“That’s okay,” Wendy said mildly, keeping her back angled to Sarah. “We all keep secrets at this time of year.”
Kristen bit her lip, thinking about the room that would be finished in the new year and what she suspected was Wendy’s bigger yet very tiny secret.
“That’s one of my favorite parts of Christmas,” Kristen said. “I love keeping all the surprises under wraps. Not that I’ve had any really good secrets for years. I bought gifts for my niece and nephew, but she’s two and he’s only four months. It’ll be a few years before there will be a payoff for keeping secrets from them. Let me know if you want some help with whatever you’re planning,” she offered to Sarah.
“Really?” Sarah brightened and sat up straighter.
“Of course. I kind of have to. That way I can say later, in all honesty, that Mistletoe Chalet is the perfect place to enjoy Christmas.”
“Ha. Right!” Sarah nodded and her mouth tilted into a conspirator’s smile.
End of Excerpt