Will Colson let out a big manly grunt as he heaved his snowboard bag out of the back of his charcoal-gray BMW M5. He still couldn’t figure out why he’d agreed to this. He hated Christmas. Hated everything about Christmas. The music, the decorations, the idea that a fat man in a red suit could travel around the world in a flying sleigh and visit every home in the world in one night. It was all a big joke. So how in the world he found himself heading into the quaint little coffee shop in Riverbend, Washington, located at the base of Snoqualmie Pass, was anybody’s guess.
But it was either this or sitting alone in his high-rise Seattle condo, nursing a bottle of Macallan 18 until he was numb enough to go to bed. His mother was down in Trinidad visiting her family, and his dad, fuck, his dad was off with wife number—was it four or five? —down in Palm Springs for the winter. And without a brother or sister to lean on or go visit, Will was left to his own devices. But he liked it like that. No one to answer to, no one to disappoint.
Because as far as Will was concerned, he was just a big disappointment to everyone. It didn’t matter that he was a world-class doctor, having spent time in war-torn countries, repairing cleft palates on babies and treating the sick and wounded. He was a selfish man because he liked his job; he was good at it, and that was enough for him. He didn’t want a family, he didn’t need a family, and although Janice had said the same things when they’d first met, that her career would always be her focus, they weren’t even a year into their marriage when the topic of babies came up. And that’s when it hit the fan.
But why would Will want to bring kids into the world? Not when he was sure he would just be a huge disappointment to them, just like his old man had been to him. Like father, like son, right? When Will was eight, his dad walked out on his family on Christmas Eve. Left him and his mom crying on the couch as his dad announced he was leaving her for another woman, a nurse he’d fallen in love with. She became wife number two, but she didn’t last long.
Of course, there was also the fact that years later, Janice handed Will divorce papers on Christmas morning as he poured his coffee and hummed Jingle Bells under his breath. She’d stated “irreconcilable differences and neglect,” that his demanding job interfered with them starting a family. She’d called him “selfish and a psychopath.” And by the news and ruckus on Facebook recently, she hadn’t wasted any time on the baby front. They hadn’t even been divorced a year, and already she was announcing her engagement to Will’s ex-best friend and their pregnancy to the entire world. So, after that devastating revelation, Will replied “yes” to his co-worker’s wife’s email, more out of necessity to escape reality for a few days than a desire to get into the Yuletide spirit. He needed to get away.
Will slid into a vacant booth and ordered a coffee. Not really hungry but feeling like he needed to do something with his hands, he picked up a menu and began to read it. The door chimed, and he looked up, but all he could see was a tiny flurry of dark red hair and duffel bags struggling to get into the warmth of the café.
“You sure you don’t want to join us and the kids?” Tim Roth asked his sister as he pulled up in front of the boring-looking coffee shop covered with a thick blanket of snow in sleepy little Riverbend.
Amber gave him a half-smile and an eye roll as she went to open her door. “As much as I would love to spend a week with you, Jillian and the kids driving down to California in a minivan, I’m going to have to pass.”
He snorted a laugh as he put the van into park before opening his own door and joining her back near the hatch. “Fair enough. To be honest, I’m a tad nervous about it as well. Jill thinks we can just drive nonstop, switching drivers and sleeping on the way. I’d just as soon grab a hotel rather than listen to Harlow whine for eight hours.”
Amber grabbed her duffel bag and snowboard bag and swung them both over her shapely shoulder. “You make it sound like so much fun.”
He reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Merry Christmas, sis. Enjoy your ski trip with your friends. We’re definitely going to miss you.” He pulled her close for one of his famous bear hugs. The Roth family bear hugs were legendary, and when it was just the brothers, the hugs often ended up in a wrestling match. But no matter how many times Amber said she wanted to roughhouse, too, the boys had always been very gentle with her. She was the baby, and they treated her as such.
“Merry Christmas, Tim. Give the kids a big kiss for me. And don’t forget to give them my presents before you guys leave for California. I bought them all travel art kits, something to give you and Jill some peace and quiet for a least a few hours on the trip.”
He finally released her but didn’t let go quite yet. “Okay, will do. Merry Christmas.” And with a final squeeze to her shoulder he let her go and wandered back around to the driver’s side, before shooting her one last look. “You pack a dress?” Tim didn’t even wait for her response as he opened the door of the van and hopped in. He chuckled before the door slammed shut, and Amber could see his body jostling in mirth as he started the engine and put the car into drive.
Tim could be such a dink sometimes. A tomboy to her very core, Amber hated dresses and makeup. She much preferred jeans and a flannel and to sit and drink a beer while watching the game than go out shopping for sparkly clothes with the girls or gab over martinis and tapas. It only took her parents a few years of wrapping up dolls and ponies and tea sets that never even made it out of the packaging for them to realize that what Amber really wanted was her own tool belt and tools. She wanted blocks. She wanted Tinker Toys, a train set, and Legos. Things she could really do something with. Toys that used both her mind and her hands to create. And those things came easily, seeing as all the boys ahead of her had these toys in excess.
After the initial shock wore off that the family’s sweet little red-haired pixie was going to be following in her father’s footsteps and joining the family construction business, everyone accepted Amber’s decision and fully supported her. And she’d made a name for herself in the process, winning contracts her father would have never even considered bidding on. In the last three years, since taking the helm of Roth Construction Incorporated, she’d expanded the company exponentially and made a buttload of money in the process.
But despite her contempt for all things girlie, all things sweet, all things sentimental, Amber loved Christmas. She loved everything about it. The food, the decorations, the music, and the time spent with those she loved. With three older brothers, she’d been spoiled rotten at any gift-giving holiday, be it Christmas or her birthday. Even Easter saw her raking it in on the present front from every branch of the family tree. Being the only girl in the entire Roth clan for several years (until her niece Harlow was born five years ago), with nephews and boy cousins as far back as anyone cared to count, she was treated like the gem of the family, rare and delicate and prized.
When Daisy, a friend from spin-class, offered her a chance to come and spend the holidays in the mountains, surrounded by snow, friends, and holiday whimsy, Amber leaped at the chance. Her parents were across the country in Florida, visiting her aunt for the holiday, and all of her brothers were either in Hawaii, California or down in Arizona with their wives and kids. Not one of them would be experiencing a white Christmas. So, with a twinkle in her hazel eyes and holiday spirit in her heart, she packed her bags—even throwing in her one and only dress, a bright red lacy number that always dropped a few jaws—and headed for the mountains.
She made her way toward the door of the coffee shop but turned back to wave to Tim before she pulled the heavy oak door. She ducked inside, fumbling furiously with all her sacks and luggage, her hair flying around her as she battled the wind and hinges. When she finally popped her head up, the most gorgeous brown eyes were staring back at her from across the room.
Rowan Briggs turned off the ignition of his Chevy pickup and reached for his phone, confirming the address. Yep, this was the right spot. Seemed like an unusual place to grab a shuttle, but then Riley had married an odd woman. Daisy was nice, sweet as pie and well-intentioned, but the woman was a tad eccentric. I guess that’s what you get when you marry a Canadian.
Rowan chuckled to himself.
Crazy Canadians and their “eh, this,” and “eh, that.”
He’d only been over the border a few times in his life, despite the fact that he lived only fifty miles from it, and each and every time had been a blast—skiing at Whistler, a houseboat on the Shushwap. But by and large, Rowan found Canadians to be a bit odd. Overly friendly, overly happy, and what the hell was it with all the apologizing?
Reaching into the back seat, he grabbed his bags and jacket and double-checked that he had his knife case and spice set before he opened the door and headed toward the coffee shop.
When Daisy had sent her email a few weeks ago, Rowan had literally scoffed and shaken his head at the harebrained idea his old summer camp buddy’s new bride had concocted. He had no time for such a holiday. He had no time, period. The man worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day as a sous-chef at the Rouge Oak Room in Olympia, and when he wasn’t working, he was in the kitchen at home, coming up with new and creative dishes. Only those dishes never made it past his front door. His younger sister raved about them when she was over for dinner, telling him he should quit the Rouge Oak and open his own restaurant, but what Annie didn’t understand was that to do that, you needed capital. And Rowan had none.
But now here he was, heading inside the coffee shop to meet up with whatever other suckers had RSVP’d “yes” to Daisy’s invitation. Because as of three days ago, Rowan was officially unemployed.
Overlooked, yet again, for the executive chef position by the owner, Silvio, who decided that twenty-two-year-old Cindi, the little line cook who’d been dropping to her knees in Silvio’s office for the past three months, was far more skilled and qualified for the job than Rowan, who had nearly twenty years in the restaurant industry. Who had a Red Seal, had attended Le Cordon Bleu, had worked in France under none other than the infamous Chef Lucien Lacroix, the temperamental but genius culinary mastermind who everyone and their dog ached to apprentice with.
When Silvio broke the news, Rowan had quit right then and there. He took off his apron, rolled up his knives, grabbed his recipe book and spice set, and walked out mid-shift. It didn’t matter that he liked everyone he worked with and was sick to his stomach that he was leaving them in the lurch during the holiday season; it was a matter of principle. He’d earned that executive chef position, and he was done being overlooked and under-appreciated. He was done not having his ideas and recipes considered. They were good, damn good, and he knew it. But Silvio wouldn’t even taste Rowan’s creations, claiming he possessed a “traditional palate” and Rowan’s ideas were too “out there” for the Rouge Oak.
So, in a blind fit of rage as he stalked out to his truck, having flipped both Cindi and Silvio two giant birds, he pulled out his phone and punched in a big “YES” to Daisy’s email. He didn’t realize until he was home and the steam from his ears evaporated what he’d actually gone and agreed to.
He opened the heavy wooden door of the café and stepped inside, instantly greeted with the smells and sounds that comforted him the most. The clatter of utensils on plates, the sizzle of a grill, and the smell of bacon and . . . was that a Tuscan chicken panini on the press he detected? He took a second whiff. Shit, it was about to be overcooked. Standing there taking it all in, he knew what he wanted more than anything, and that was to one day run his own restaurant, with the freedom to cook what he wanted, when he wanted, with no limitations. He was about to ask the waitress if any other shuttle passengers were in the shop when he was slammed in the back and nearly knocked off his feet.
Juniper Davis, or “Juney” to her friends, glanced at the clock on the dash of her Lexus. She was late. Juney was never late. She left her house at four in the morning in order to get to the border crossing ahead of the holiday rush. But apparently, every other Canadian heading south for the holidays had the same idea, and she was stuck sitting in line for hours. But thankfully, that was where Juney did some of her best writing. In her car, driving, with her digital recorder. In those three hours, she dictated nearly four chapters of her latest fantasy novel, and in the process, created at least three new characters to whom she wanted to give spin-off series.
But, productivity aside, Juney hated being late, especially when meeting people for the first time. First impressions were everything. She hoped to God that she wasn’t the last one to arrive, causing whoever else was heading up on the shuttle to wait for her. She would have to apologize.
It’d been an easy decision when Daisy, a childhood friend, sent her the email invitation. With both her parents on a Mediterranean cruise for the holiday, and her sisters off with their husbands’ families, Juney was left all on her own. Which, in a lot of ways, was how she preferred it, at least for now.
And although there were always things to do around the family vineyard that she ran, or a new manuscript to write, or a completed one to edit, paperbacks to sign or fan letters to respond to, she hadn’t seen Daisy in almost a year, and it was high time Juney did something for herself. She’d spent the last month interviewing chefs for the new tasting room and restaurant she was opening in the winery. A picture-perfect dining spot right on Okanagan Lake. But so far, she hadn’t been wowed by a single person, and the countdown was on to their soft opening. She needed a chef—yesterday! So, instead of dwelling on her problems, she put them aside until the new year, packed up her laptop, her skis and a case of her family’s finest, and hit the road. Ready to ski all day and roast chestnuts and drink wine all night.
She spotted the sign for the coffee shop on the right and turned into the parking lot. She didn’t see anyone looming outside, appearing as though they were waiting for a shuttle. In fact, she didn’t see a shuttle bus, either.
Had she missed it?
Had it left without her?
She threw the car into park and leaped out. She almost forgot her digital recorder, but at the last minute, bonking her head in the process, she swung back into the front seat and grabbed it. Juggling her bags, she hustled inside, not bothering to look where she was going or what she was doing. She rammed face-first into a hard, warm, muscular back that smelled faintly of . . . was that oregano?
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry.”
Austin Masters ran his hand down his face in exhaustion, his three-day-old ruddy stubble rough beneath his callused fingers.
He’d forgotten to shave.
He was forgetting a lot of things these days.
Had he remembered to brush his teeth this morning? Having been up until nearly 3 a.m. working, then awake at seven and out the door by eight, Austin was exhausted. Oh well, he was heading up into the woods, and this was how woodsmen wore their beards, right? He took a right into the coffee shop parking lot, then tossed his big red Dodge into park. His phone had been beeping incessantly at him since he’d hit the road, but he refused to answer it. Always another crisis. But he was on vacation, and the crisis could wait until the new year. Even Reggie had told him to go and relax, and that was a lot coming from a fellow workaholic.
Muttering several fucks under his breath, he ignored his earlier claim and grabbed his phone anyway, scanning the emails and then finally accessing his voicemail.
Shit, six missed messages.
“Dr. Masters, it’s Fiona Allenby again. I’m sorry to bother you when you’re away on vacation, but Mr. Smythe would really like those new modification plans on the zero-emission luxury car now rather than later. He’s worried about our competitors beating us to the punch. So, please call us back as soon as you can.”
Austin let out a weighty sigh. Their “competitors” would never be able to come up with the kind of innovations that Austin and Reggie were developing, and certainly not in the next five days.
He had time.
Besides, he hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks yet, and he wasn’t about to send Mr. Smythe the modifications until he knew they were foolproof. One more message, that was it, then he was going to switch his phone off.
“Sheldon!” It was Reggie. The eccentric Brit always called him Sheldon after the dorky, socially inept main character on The Big Bang Theory. The funny thing was, Reggie wasn’t the only one. The moment the show aired, people started calling Austin “Sheldon,” even though he looked nothing like the actor. Apparently, he had the awkwardness down pat.
“Sheldon! I’m assuming you got the message from Fiona Appleby or Allenby or whatever her name is? Look, we’re fine. Smythe is fine. Go have some fun. Fuck knows you need some joy and excitement in your life. The project will be here when you get back. Anyway, don’t stress about Smythe, it’ll only piss off your ulcer. The project is coming along nicely, and we’ll finish it up when you get back. Happy Christmas, mah boy.”
Austin shook his head with a smile. He really liked his boss, the millionaire environmental genius with a well-known temper. Reggie had always been kind to Austin, despite the rumors that circulated about him being difficult to work with and prone to flying off the handle and walking out mid-meeting. Reggie had taken Austin under his wing, treating him more like a son than an employee or protégé.
And Reggie was right.
Austin needed some down time, so instead of calling back Fiona Allenby, he turned off his phone and closed his eyes. If the company at the cabin turned out to be subpar, he would sleep the week away, only coming out of his room to eat. He was exhausted.
A prodigy since he could walk, Austin had finished high school at thirteen, graduated college at seventeen, and been offered graduate student positions at both MIT and CalTech. He went with MIT, deciding that a change of scenery for a few years might do him some good. He loved the West Coast, but he wanted to see what the East Coast had to offer.
Which was not much, in the end. Well, besides snooty rich kids, Red Sox fans, frigid winters, hurricanes and cheap lobster (that was the only plus). So after finishing his master’s in record time, he hightailed it back to the Pacific Northwest. He moved down to Pasadena to get his Ph.D. at Caltech, only to be recruited right back up to Washington state, before the ink on his diploma was even dry, by the oddball Reginald Caruthers.
But Austin couldn’t remember the last time he’d done anything fun, done anything for himself. He’d been working so hard for so long; it’d become the norm. First school, then more school, then even more school. He was a grad student before he could even step inside a bar. And now, working on the new zero-emissions car with Reggie was just another job—a fun job, and one he enjoyed, but it was work all the same. His doctor had even warned him he was working too hard when he’d gone in complaining of stomach pain. Turns out he had the beginnings of an ulcer. His doctor had advised him to ease up, told him he would have a heart attack at the tender age of twenty-seven unless he slowed down and got a life.
So, when his childhood friend’s new wife’s email sprung into his inbox a few days before Christmas, he’d leaped at the opportunity to get away from the real world for a week and hang out with people who wanted to talk about more than just biofuels, solar panels and the world’s depleting helium stores. Raised by atheist parents, Austin didn’t celebrate Christmas; instead his family observed the winter solstice. But that didn’t mean he didn’t delight in the joy and whimsy of the holiday season, and he’d been known to treat himself to an eggnog latte and gingerbread cookie at Starbucks from time to time. He double-checked his truck was locked, grabbed his bags, then headed for the door, only to see a sexy-as-hell white Audi A3 pull into the parking lot, blonde hair and a black toque behind the wheel. The faintest sound of the Arkells’ Leather Jacket drifted into his ears before the engine was killed. He loved the Arkells.
Hunter Kingsley tapped her fingers on the leather steering wheel of her Audi A3, her head bopping lightly to the Arkells on the radio. This was good, this was really good. Hunter needed to get away. She needed to regroup and take some time to think. She switched lanes, then stopped at the red light. The sign for the coffee shop was up on the right, just past the gas station. Daisy would know what to do. Daisy was like a big sister to Hunter. Having met on the beach one summer when Hunter was seventeen and Daisy twenty-two, Hunter, a lost and lonely soul, selling her clothes and Daisy peddling ice cream as a summer job, the two had hit it off and been like sisters ever since. Daisy was the one to encourage Hunter to go sell her clothes at music festivals and art fairs. Yes, she would definitely help Hunter figure out where her future lay, what was next in store. Because right now, Hunter was, once again, feeling lost.
Having bounced around the system as a foster kid, Hunter hadn’t had the best life. With an absent dad and a teenage mom, she wound up a part of the system before her third birthday. But somehow, despite having dropped out of high school at fifteen, then backpacking across the U.S. with a girlfriend for two years, working odd jobs and living in hostels, she’d managed to pull up her bootstraps and start a business.
Small at first, stalls at local craft fairs and bazaars, cajoling the odd store to sell her stuff, she’d set up her old VW hippie van on the side of the road down by the beach in the summertime and sold the odd piece. Then there was Etsy and other online stores, which did all right. But it was at the Sasquatch music festival where her bamboo, hemp and organic cotton clothing really took off. She sold out the first day and had orders coming in nonstop for over a month afterward. She had to rent a bigger apartment to accommodate all her supplies and eventually hire an assistant to help her with production. And from there, Breathe, Babe, Breathe clothing line was born.
Now, after nearly six years in business, she had five stores in Washington state, three in Oregon and two in California. And there was talk of another two going in L.A. and San Francisco in the new year sometime, as well as one in Vancouver, Canada. Yes, she was living the life. The little foster kid who hadn’t finished high school was now a successful businesswoman and had recently been named one of Forbes’s thirty under thirty.
But now what? She’d done it. She’d reached the pinnacle of success. Where to now? Get her GED? Nope, she did that two years ago. Start another business? Nope, that was last year. Curiously Kinky at-home romance parties were growing like wildfire in a windstorm. She had more employees than she could shake a stick at, more people signing up to be representatives and consultants than she could keep track of and people booking parties left, right and center. So much so that there was now a wait list for the coming year until September (wedding season was HUGE). And they’d just recently expanded to virtual parties, where you could log on and do a Skype or Facetime party with your representative, then place your order online.
So, where to now?
Could she go any higher before she touched the sun and got burned?
Turning into the coffee shop parking lot and putting the car in park, she quickly slathered on some lip gloss, adjusted her toque and turned off her phone. She was powering down this week. She needed to. It was as if she had been wandering around in a fog for the past six months. A creative block of sorts. No new designs or business ideas had come to her in ages, and that alone was alarming. She was never without her sketchbook, never without a new idea rattling around in her brain. And yet, over the last six months, she hadn’t sketched more than a pair of shorts or had one new business idea.
Things were getting a little worrisome.
Things were getting stale.
She needed to regroup and talk to Daisy. Daisy would help her figure out the next step, she always did.
After making sure she had her snowboard bag and suitcase, she rolled up to the front door, but not before admiring the sexy red Dodge parked out front. She had a thing for big manly trucks, and as she pulled the door handle, she caught herself wondering if there was a big beefy man inside to go along with the big beefy truck.
* * *
The ride up to the cabin was not nearly as awkward or uncomfortable as Amber had feared. Six strangers headed up into the snowy mountains to spend Christmas together, their only connection being the spritely host who waited at the top for them, hopefully with a tray full of rum and eggnogs, heavy on the rum, light on the nog.
After realizing who was who, mainly through weird wordless conversations with curious eyes and head tilts, they all made their way out the front of the café and met their shuttle. They did the quick, get-to-know-ya questions as they traversed up the highway, the twenty-one miles to the summit.
“Do you need a hand with your bag?” Will asked Amber once they were at the cabin and unloading the van in the driveway. She struggled to toss her ski bag over her shoulder while not letting go of her other luggage.
She narrowed her eyes to a glare. “I think I’ve got it, thanks.” Her eyes fell to his enormous hands and how dark they were. The skin beneath his nails was a soft pink, and his nails were perfectly trimmed. She was used to looking at gnarled and filthy hands, hands with cuts and scratches, calluses and bruises.
She liked his softer hands.
She liked them a lot.
Having those hands on her body, in her hair . . . inside her . . . the thought made the blood pumping swiftly through her veins begin to sizzle.
He shrugged, not seeming to care one way or another. “Okay.” And with the kind of graceful ease that made Amber seethe inside, he swung his own bag over his big muscular shoulder, flurries landing in his black, close-cut hair as he sauntered up the freshly shoveled path of the driveway.
“Has anyone been here before?” Juney asked, her cerulean eyes taking in the impressive entirety of the log cabin, mimicking Amber’s feelings about the gorgeous home away from home.
Amber shook her head. “It looks more like a log mansion than a cabin.”
Hunter hummed quietly. “Even though Riley and Daisy have made their own fortune, Daisy’s parents are loaded. Her dad invested in Microsoft at the right time. I think he went to school with Bill Gates or something. Had the inside scoop.” She flipped her flaxen hair over her shoulder before rubbing her hands together from the cold.
“This your bag?” Austin asked her, eyeing the unusual fabric.
Hunter nodded. “Yep.”
Austin handed it to her out of the back of the shuttle bus. “What’s it made out of? It’s really soft.”
Amber leaned in to feel the fabric for herself as Hunter went on to explain. “Bamboo. Same with my board bag. I actually made them myself. Bamboo breathes and dries really quickly. The faster things dry, the less likely they’ll start to stink. And that musty smell that fabrics get when they haven’t dried properly is actually mildew and can be harmful.”
Amber frowned as she let go of the silky fabric. It was nice but seemed like it would tear easily.
Austin simply nodded. The guy looked stupefied as he stood there staring at the blonde. “Oh, really?” he went on.
Amber shook her head and made a rude noise in her throat.
But Hunter seemed to be into him and nodded with a genuine smile, following Amber and Austin and the rest of the crew up the path and the big cedar staircase to the front door. “Yeah. We also toyed with the idea of weaving silver into our fabrics as well, as silver has antimicrobial properties, but after reading some studies about how the silver content depletes over time after washing and ends up in our water systems, we decided to nix the idea.”
“Daisy! Riley!” Will shouted, his big, dark hands pounding on the door. They were met with silence.
“Is there a doorbell?” Rowan asked.
Amber looked around. She spotted one under a bough of cedar tied festively with a big red velvet bow and pressed it several times. It chimed sweetly in the cabin. Nothing. Not a peep from inside the house.
Will’s lips curled up into a wily grin. “They’re probably in bed. I think Daisy mentioned they were on the baby train express.”
Snickers and half-hearted chuckles drifted around the other five.
“Maybe we should try the door?” Amber suggested, elbowing her way forward and trying the knob. It swung forward, and the smell of cloves, oranges, pine tree and cinnamon hit her in the face like a roundhouse kick. She took a quick inhale and smiled.
It was the smell of Christmas.
“Do we go in?” Austin asked behind her. Hesitation colored his tone.
Amber shifted foot to foot, that sudden feeling of being a part of some horrible prank or a Christmas horror film creeping its way up her spine. Was a psychopathic man in a cheap velour jumpsuit and scraggly Santa beard going to come murder them all in their sleep with an ax? Chanting “HO, HO, HO!” as he hacked off their limbs?
Will moved forward into the house, his big frame taking up the entire doorway. “May as well. Maybe they ran back into town for supplies. Or they’re out skiing. Let’s check for a note or something.”
Everyone nodded, a series of murmurs both for and against the idea of wandering into the empty house filling the air, along with the shuffle and stomp of heavy boots and bags being brought across the threshold.
“Here’s a note!” Amber announced.
“What’s it say?” Juney asked.
“It says, ‘Hit Play.’ What the hell? Hit play where?”
“Here,” Will said, holding up the remote for the big-screen television mounted above the beautiful fireplace.
“So, hit play, then,” Rowan said, letting his bags clunk to the ground and wandering over to stand behind the couch, his trusty knife kit tucked under his arm as if it might suddenly jump up and run away. Everyone spread themselves out around the room, some sitting, some standing.
It was an enormous space, with plush dark brown leather furniture, cream shaggy rugs, green-and brick-colored tapestries and dark stained logs. But despite all the darkness, the big picture window next to the ten-foot-tall tree decorated in red, white and gold let in so much light, the place seemed massive and bright.
Will pointed the remote, and the television flashed to life.
“Hi, guys!” It was Daisy. “You’re probably wondering what the hell is going on. Well . . . I have a little confession to make: Riley and I won’t be joining you this week. Sorry.”
“What the fuck?” Rowan blurted.
“See . . . I’m a matchmaker. Like literally. I do it for a living, you all know that. Daisy’s Chain Attraction Match-Making Service is how Riley and I are able to afford the four-week Caribbean catamaran cruise we’re on right now. But in the spirit of the season, I decided to play matchmaker for free for some of our nearest and dearest friends. You’re all single, you’re all lonely, and you all are incredible people. I wouldn’t have invited you up if you were subpar. No, Daisy’s Chain Attraction only matches the best with the best.”
Will made a manly noise in his throat that Amber couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“You’ve all been carefully selected, put through my computer, and your perfect match is here.” Wary and intrigued gazes drifted around the room, sizing one another up. Wondering, hoping, fantasizing. “But . . . ” Daisy raised one crimson painted nail in the air. “I’m not going to tell you who you’ve been matched with. That’s up to you to figure out.”
“You can’t be serious?” Amber muttered under her breath.
“Amber, you’re probably rolling your eyes right now. You’re probably getting ready to leave. Well, why do you think I had you take a shuttle? Give it a week. Enjoy the cabin, go skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing. Just get to know one another. The fridge is stocked, there’s lots to drink, and you even have a doctor on site in case one of you sprains an ankle. Right, Will?”
They all turned to look at the big doctor with the bright white smile, but he wasn’t in his spot. The sound of ice being cracked free of the tray drew everyone’s eyes. Will started pouring scotch into six glasses.
“If you don’t find love,” Daisy went on, “well, so be it. But my algorithm has resulted in over thirty marriages, nineteen babies, and that was only in the first two years.”
“She never said how many failed matches,” Rowan added snidely.
“I have an eighty-seven percent success rate, Rowan, the eternal pessimist.”
Rowan spun around. “Fuck, is she here? Does she have hidden cameras somewhere? Are we on a nanny cam?”
“You’re not on a nanny cam, don’t worry. I just know you all very well and know who’s cynical and who’s not.”
“Well, fuck,” Rowan grumbled under his breath.
“Now, have a holly jolly Christmas, enjoy getting to know one another, and . . . here’s hoping you get some use out of that mistletoe. Merry Christmas, everyone. The shuttle will be back to pick you up at noon on December 28th.”
The screen went black.
The sound of ice rattling around in glasses caused heads to swivel toward the noise. Will wandered back into the living room, his arms bogged down with a tray. “Who wants a drink?”