HOME SWEET CHRISTMAS Author: Susan Mallery Publisher: HQN
#1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery's second book set in the small town of Wishing Tree, Washington is the witty and heartfelt story of two friends who expectedly find the person--and the place in which--they belong this Christmas, for fans of Elin Hildebrand, Robyn Carr, and Susan Wiggs.
This small-town life wasn’t supposed to be for Camryn Neff. But after her mother died, Camryn moved home to Wishing Tree, Washington to care for her teenaged twin sisters and run the family wrapping paper business, Wrap Around the Clock. She loves her sisters and would do anything for them but, when they head off to college, she’s excited to move back to Chicago and restart her real life, completely attachment-free. So when a prospective client schedules a meeting and announces Project: Jake’s Bride, a plot to find a wife for her son, Camryn is completely disinterested. And when this client announces that Camryn is a candidate, she’s horrified. Being tied down is the last thing Camryn needs right now. She has no choice but to tell Jake what his mom is planning. But Camryn never expected to genuinely like him so much…
River Best knows all about the danger of keeping secrets. After all, she’s had her heart broken and her world rocked by secrets a few times now and she won’t ever let it happen again. New to Wishing Tree and a little shy, River is looking to get involved in the community so she lets her friends talk her into running for Snow Queen, one of the town's honorary hosts of all Christmas events. She never expected to be drawn to Dylan Tucker, her Snow King. As the season progresses, River starts to trust him more and more and wonders if he's the one. But little does River know that Dylan is keeping a secret from her, one that threatens everything between them.
“Your teeth are lovely, Camryn. Did you wear braces as a child?”
Camryn Neff reminded herself that not only was the woman sitting across from her a very wealthy potential client, but also that her mother had raised her to be polite to her elders. Still, it took serious effort to keep from falling out of her chair at the weirdness of the question.
“No. This is how they grew.”
Hmm, that didn’t sound right, although to be honest, she didn’t have a lot of experience when a conversation turned dental.
She refocused her mind to the meeting at hand. Not that she knew for sure why Helen Crane, leader of Wishing Tree society, such as it was, and sole owner of the very impressive Crane hotel empire, wanted to meet with her. The summons had come in the form of a handwritten note, inviting her to the large, sprawling estate on Grey Wolf Lake. Today at two.
So here Camryn was, wearing a business suit that had been hanging in her closet for over a year. The dress code for Wishing Tree retail and the dress code for the job in finance she’d left back in Chicago were very different. While it had been fun to dust off her gorgeous boots and a silk blouse, and discover her skirts still fit, she was ready to get to the point of the invitation.
“How can I help you, Mrs. Crane?” she asked.
Camryn smiled. “Helen. I’m happy to host a wrapping party, either here or at the store. Or if you’d prefer, I can simply collect all your holiday gifts and wrap them for you.”
She casually glanced around at the high ceilings of the sitting room. There was a massive fireplace, intricate molding and a view of the lake that, even with two feet of snow on the ground, was spectacular. And while there were lovely fall floral displays on several surfaces, there wasn’t a hint of Christmas to be found. Not in Wishing Tree, eight days before Thanksgiving. Those decorations didn’t appear until the Friday after.
“I have some samples for custom wrapping paper,” she said, pulling out several sheets of paper from her leather briefcase. “The designs can be adjusted and the colors coordinated with what you have planned for this holiday season. Wrapped presents under a tree are such an elegant touch.”
“You’re very thorough,” Helen murmured. “Impressive.” She made a note on a pad. “Are you married, dear?”
“What?” Camryn clutched the wrapping paper samples. “No.”
Helen nodded. “Your mother passed away last year, didn’t she?”
A fist wrapped around Camryn’s heart. “Yes. In late October.”
“I remember her. She was a lovely woman. You and your sisters must have been devastated.”
That was one word for it, Camryn thought grimly, remembering how her life had been shattered by the loss. In the space of a few weeks, she’d gone from being a relatively carefree, engaged, happy junior executive in Chicago to the sole guardian for her twin sisters, all the while dealing with trying to keep Wrap Around the Clock, the family business, afloat. The first few months after her mother’s death were still a blur. She barely remembered anything about the holidays last year, save an unrelenting sadness.
“This year the season will be so much happier,” Helen said firmly. “Victoria and Lily are thriving at school. Of course they still miss their mother, but they’re happy, healthy young adults.” The older woman smiled. “I know the teen years can be trying but I confess I quite enjoyed them with Jake.”
Camryn frowned slightly. “How do you know about the twins?” she asked.
Helen’s smile never faded. “It’s Wishing Tree, my dear. Everyone knows more than everyone else thinks. Now, you’re probably wondering why I invited you over today.”
“To discuss wrapping paper?” Although even as Camryn voiced the question, she knew instinctively that was not the real reason.
Helen Crane was close to sixty, with perfect posture and short, dark hair. Her gaze was direct, her clothes stylish. She looked as if she’d never wanted for anything and was very used to getting her way.
“Of course you’ll take care of all my wrapping needs,” Helen said easily. “And I do like your idea of custom paper for faux presents under the tree. I’ll have my holiday decorator get in touch with you so you two can coordinate the design. But the real reason I asked you here is to talk about Jake.”
Camryn was having a little trouble keeping up. The order for wrapping and the custom paper was great news, but why would Helen want to discuss her son?
She knew who Jake was—everyone in town did. He was the handsome, successful heir to the Crane hotel fortune. He’d been the football captain in high school, had gone to Stanford. After learning the hotel business at the smaller Crane hotels, he was back in Wishing Tree, promoted to general manager of the largest, most luxurious of the properties.
They’d never run in the same circles back when they’d been kids, in part because she was a few years younger. She’d been a lowly freshman while he’d been a popular senior. Her only real connection with Jake was the fact that he’d once been engaged to her friend Reggie.
Helen sighed. “I’ve come to the conclusion that left to his own devices, Jake is never going to give me grandchildren. I lost my husband eighteen months ago, which has been very hard for me. It’s time for my son to get on with finding someone, getting married and having the grandchildren I deserve.”
Well, that put the whole “did you wear braces” conversational gambit in perspective, Camryn thought, not sure if she should laugh or just plain feel sorry for Jake. His mother was a powerful woman. Camryn sure wouldn’t want to cross her.
“I’m not sure what that has to do with me,” she admitted.
Helen tapped her pad of paper. “I’ve come up with a plan. I’m calling it Project: Jake’s Bride. I’m going to find my son a wife and you’re a potential candidate.”
Camryn heard all the words. Taken individually, she knew what Helen was saying. But when put together, in that exact way, the meaning completely escaped her.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You’re pretty, you’re smart. You’ve done well at Wrap Around the Clock. You’re nurturing—look how you’ve cared for your baby sisters.” Helen smiled again. “I confess I do like the idea of instant grandchildren, so that’s a plus for you. There are other candidates, of course, but you’re definitely near the top of the list. All I need is confirmation from your gynecologist that you’re likely to be fertile and then we can get on with the business of you and Jake falling in love.”
“You want to know if I’m fertile?”
Camryn shoved the samples back in her briefcase and stood. “Mrs. Crane, I don’t know what century you think we’re living in, but this isn’t a conversation I’m going to have with you. My fertility is none of your business. Nor is my love life. If your plan is genuine, you need to rethink it. And while you’re doing that, you might want to make an appointment with your own doctor, because there’s absolutely something wrong with you.”
Helen looked surprisingly unconcerned. “You’re right, Camryn. I apologize. Mentioning fertility was going a bit too far. You’re the first candidate I’ve spoken to, so I’m still finding my way through all this.” She wrote on her pad. “I won’t bring that up again. But as to the rest of it, seriously, what are your thoughts?”
Camryn sank back on her chair. “Don’t do it. Meddling is one thing, but you’re talking about an actual campaign to find your son a bride. No. Just no. It’s likely to annoy him, and any woman who would participate in something like this isn’t anyone you want in your family.”
Helen nodded slowly. “An interesting point. It’s just they make it look so easy on those reality shows.”
“Nothing is real on those shows. The relationships don’t last. Jake’s going to find someone. Give him time.”
“I’ve given him two years. I’m not getting younger, you know.” Her expression turned wistful. “And I do want grandchildren.”
“Ask me on the right day and you can have the twins.”
Helen laughed. “I wish that were true.” Her humor faded. “Do you know my son?”
“We could start with a coffee date.”
Camryn sighed. “Helen, seriously. This isn’t going to work. Let him get his own girl.”
“He’s not. That’s the problem. All right, I can see I’m not going to convince you to be a willing participant. I appreciate your time.” She rose. “I meant what I said about the wrapping. I’ll arrange to have all my gifts taken to your store. And my holiday decorator will be in touch about the custom paper.”
“Is the holiday decorator different from the regular decorator?” Camryn asked before she could stop herself.
Helen chuckled. “Yes, she is. My regular decorator is temperamental and shudders at the thought of all that cheer and tradition. He came over close to Christmas a few years ago and nearly fainted when he saw the tree in the family room.”
She leaned close and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s devoted to all the ornaments Jake made for me when he was little. There are plaster handprints and little stars made out of Popsicle sticks. My favorite is a tuna can with a tiny baby Jesus in the manger tucked inside. There’s bits of straw and a star.” She pressed both hands to her heart. “I tear up thinking about it.”
Baby Jesus in a tuna can? Helen was one strange woman.
Camryn collected her briefcase and followed Helen to the front door. Helen opened it, then looked at her.
“You’re sure about not being a part of Project: Jake’s Bride?”
“Yes. Very.” Camryn kept her tone firm, so there would be no misunderstanding.
“A pity, but I respect your honesty.”
Camryn walked to her SUV and put her briefcase in the backseat. Once she was behind the wheel, she glanced at the three-story house rising tall and proud against the snow and gray sky.
The rich really were different, she told herself as she circled the driveway and headed for the main road. Different in a cray-cray kind of way.
She turned left on North Ribbon Road. When she reached Cypress Highway, she started to turn right—the shortest way back to town. At the last minute, she went straight. Even as she drove north, she told herself it wasn’t her business. Maybe Jake knew about his mother’s plans. Maybe he supported them.
Okay, not that, she thought, passing the outlet mall, then turning on Red Cedar Highway and heading up the mountain. She might not know Jake very well, but Reggie had dated him for months. Reggie was a sweetie who would never go out with a jerk. So Jake had to be a regular kind of guy, and regular guys didn’t approve of their mothers finding them wives.
Besides, she doubted Jake needed any help in that department. He was tall, good-looking and really fit. She’d caught sight of him jogging past her store more than once and was willing to admit she’d stopped what she was doing to admire the view. He was also wealthy. Men like that didn’t need help getting dates.
The sign for the resort came into view. She slowed for a second, then groaned as she drove up to the valet. Maybe she was making a mistake, but there was no way she couldn’t tell Jake what had just happened. It felt too much like not mentioning toilet paper stuck to someone’s shoe.
If he already knew, then it would be a short conversation. If he didn’t care, then she would quietly think less of him and leave. If he was as horrified as she thought he might be, then she’d done her good deed for the week and yay her. Whatever the outcome, she would have done the right thing, which meant she would be able to sleep that night. Some days that was as good as it was going to get.
Excerpted from Home Sweet Christmas by Susan Mallery. Copyright © 2022 by Susan Mallery. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.