CAN’T MISS CHRISTMAS, my standalone Christmas novella, releases on November 7th. Here’s the first chapter:
Two Days Before Christmas
The sensible voice inside Graham Walker’s head told him to keep walking past the big Barnes and Noble at the Prudential Center in downtown Boston, where Grace Alberts was, at this very moment, signing her latest book. Adaline’s Christmas was about the madcap adventures of a spunky little orphan who was adopted by loving parents. Every little girl in America read Adaline. Hell, even he’d read the damn books, not because he used to be married to their author, but because his seven-year-old niece Emmy begged him to read them with her. The child had never lost her soft spot for Grace, even though they’d been divorced for two years.
Maybe he hadn’t lost that soft spot either, but he pushed that thought down, even as he turned his collar up against the pelting snow. The weather was getting nasty. It was already pushing six p.m., and he had a five-hour drive ahead of him to get home to his folks’ house in Philly for the holidays.
So should he do it? Go in there, for Emmy of course, and have Grace sign a book? Wish her Merry Christmas for old times’ sake. Look the woman in the eye who stirred up more turbulent feelings than the last presidential election…but whom he’d once loved more than anyone.
Graham slowed his steps, passing shop windows rimmed with glowing lights, and shoppers walking with their heads down, clutching their bags against the driving wind. At the familiar clang of a Salvation Army Santa’s bell, he stopped to toss a buck into the familiar red kettle. A roped-off lot sold Christmas trees that were quickly getting heaped on with snow. At this late date, there were just a few misfit-looking ones left.
That made him think of Grace and their first tree, a scrawny little thing they’d decorated with a single strand of lights and some cheap drugstore ornaments. What he really remembered was what they did afterward. After they’d plugged it in and dimmed the room lights, they’d tossed a couple of blankets on the floor and welcomed in Christmas wrapped in them and each other. Best Christmas ever.
That memory punched him straight in the gut, giving him a queasy sensation that should’ve warned him off and brought him to his senses. Yet for some reason, it made him stop dead on the street.
Fat, wet flakes covered his eyelashes, his hair, his coat, bathing him in white. Maybe he needed to look Grace in the eye and let her know he was all right. And see for himself that she was too. You could eventually come to be friends with someone who’d ripped your heart out, right?
His feet made the final decision for him, even though his stomach was rumbling and he really needed to get going on the long drive ahead. He retraced his path, finally stepping out of the frigid cold into the crowded Huntington Arcade, riding the escalator, and finally entering the golden-lit bookstore. It was full of Christmas lights and children—droves of them, despite the ominous weather—standing in a twisty-turny line that wound clear around the inside like a toy train on a track. The manager was creating yet another bend in it so people wouldn’t be forced to wait outside in the cold.
Graham let himself be herded into the crowd. He shook the snow off his coat and ran his fingers through his hair, not because he was trying to make it look better but because of nerves. He strained to see to the front of the line.
A little girl in front of him dressed in a red hat with elf ears jumped up and down, tugging on her mother’s sleeve. Behind him, a fussy toddler wailed. Outside was freezing, but the store was stuffy and hot. He undid the buttons on his coat.
“Could I have your attention, please?” came a familiar voice from the middle of the store. The line silenced, as if the kids suddenly sensed the importance of the person talking. A head popped up—blonde, wavy, stylish—and suddenly, there Grace was, standing on a desk in a gray sweater and jeans, a scarf wound casually around her neck.
His breath caught; his feet planted. His heart did an uncomfortable roll. He was gobsmacked, mesmerized by her unfussy beauty, by the simple joy that had overtaken her face. By her lovely smile. How could he possibly have the same reaction as when he’d first met her at eighteen?
The whole place hushed, and the eyes of the children surrounding him grew round with awe, as if meeting her was on the same caliber as a visit with Santa.
This had been a bad idea. He wasn’t ready. Maybe he’d never be ready, and he’d always feel this uncomfortable slurry of regret, loss, and yearning that even now threatened to overwhelm him.
From her high perch, Grace was using her arms, asking for quiet, gesturing emphatically as she always did when she was excited. She looked thin. Too thin.
“Thank you all for coming,” she said, “but the store manager’s just informed me that you’re expecting eight to ten inches of snow tonight, and the roads are getting bad.” A collective murmur went up from the crowd.
“Please don’t quit signing,” a little girl said mournfully.
“No, sweetie,” Grace said, beaming her smile the child’s way. “I’m not going to stop. But for all of you who have long, treacherous trips, we’re going to come around with a piece of paper. You can write down who you want me to sign the book to, and it’ll be waiting for you in a couple of days when you come back. That way, you can all get home safely. How’s that sound?”
“We aren’t leaving,” said a mom.
“Yeah, really,” another parent said. “As long as you can stay, we can stay.”
Grace exchanged glances with a woman he assumed was the store manager, who shrugged. “All right, then,” Grace said. “But please don’t compromise your safety for a book, okay?”
She sat back down, conversing and laughing, hugging children as she carefully signed each book. She’d always loved kids. It had been the heartbreak of their marriage that they’d lost their own child.
Watching from afar, Graham felt as if there had been no tragedy, no rivers of tears. As she laughed and smiled and handed over her books, he was reminded of when he first saw her working in the children’s section of the local library near their college. He used to hang out there when he was homesick, a place off campus where he could see families and be reminded of the real world outside the university. Finally, he’d made up some excuse to talk to her. It had taken him about a minute to fall in love with her.
Never would he have predicted what had happened between them. Never would he have imagined they would not weather the devastation of a very ill premature baby, the strains of his fledgling sports apparel business, and then her sudden, exploding fame. Yet somehow they’d let each other slip away.
If he closed his eyes for a second and forgot all the other stuff, she still felt like she was his.
No. He’d moved on. So what was he doing here, mini-stalking her? He could buy Emma an unsigned copy, and she’d never know Grace had been signing books.
With that sensible thought, Graham left the line and headed toward the exit, exhaling a breath of relief. He’d almost made it past the information desk when he heard his name.
A mumbled curse left his lips before he stopped and turned, but he already knew who it was. “Monica,” he said to a polished woman in a suit and heels who stood directly in front of him, hands on hips. He would’ve added a how nice to see you but he didn’t mean it and couldn’t bring himself to lie.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Monica the publicist. The one who’d booked Grace night and day for a year solid after she’d published her first book. The woman was a publicity machine, and she’d helped turn their home life into a circus.
“I…was in line to get a book. For my niece. But…I’ve got a long drive ahead of me.” There, that was the truth. He left out the part about panicking.
“Oh. Well. I can get you to the front of the line. Come on.”
There was no time to protest. She’d grabbed his arm and began hauling him over to Grace, whether he liked it or not.
Grace was talking to the store manager. Phrases drifted up like Airport closed. Ten inches on the way. Monica left him to fend for himself as she walked over to join the discussion.
“Did you hear this?” Grace asked Monica. “The weather’s becoming a serious issue.”
Monica did something on her phone. “Your flight’s canceled.”
“My flight can’t be canceled.”
“Your flight, and those of a million other people. You can’t fly to Philly tomorrow.”
“I have to,” Grace said. “I promised I’d be there for the book signing.”
Graham leaned against a wooden pillar in the middle of the store. Of course she’d promised. Every year, she took part in a Christmas Eve book signing for the kids who were stuck on the inpatient wards of the Children’s Hospital over the holiday. She loved that hospital, the place where Joshua, their son, was born at just twenty-six weeks. He’d gotten the best care, but the odds had been stacked against him from the start.
Graham tried to shake off the memories that had flooded, unwanted, into his brain and his heart. Now was a very bad time to say hello. It was unfortunate that Monica had seen him, but, well, no harm done. Slipping away would be cowardly but still easy. He was sorry Grace wasn’t going to make the signing, really he was, but what concern was it of his?
“What about the train, a bus, that kind of thing?” Grace asked.
Monica shook her head. “Everything’s delayed for hours.”
Grace used to get annoyed at his problem-solver nature. How many times had she told him, “I’m not looking for advice, I just want you to listen to me,” but he couldn’t help himself. His brain just worked that way. And it was working that way now.
Well, he would just turn that off. Her problems were no longer his business. He’d just stopped by to wish her happy holidays. Plus it would be overstepping to interfere.
Graham pushed off from the pole, eyeballing the doors longingly, but for the second time that day, his feet betrayed him. Instead of heading toward freedom, he walked the few steps up to the desk where Grace sat. She was tapping her pen against her chin, deep in contemplation. His first thought was that she looked even younger than when he’d last seen her. Less stressed, maybe, now that he wasn’t around? Looked like divorce had been good for her.
“What about renting a car?” she asked Monica.
He cursed under his breath. She was a white-knuckle driver in snow. She’d grown up in Florida, and he wouldn’t trust her to drive his grandma to the corner grocery store in a blizzard.
“I’m driving to Philly,” he found himself blurting out. “I have a Range Rover. You can ride with me.”
No one was more stunned than himself. Why he’d just said that, he had no idea. His folks were waiting for him in their cozy house off the Main Line, where all his siblings and their families would gather for the holiday. It was his first holiday off in five years while his business partner manned the helm. He was looking forward to a quiet drive, some peace and relaxation. All he’d wanted was to say Merry Christmas, not offer to go on an odyssey of epic proportions across three state lines with his ex-wife.
In all fairness, she probably felt the same way.
“Graham.” Her pretty blue eyes widened. The word came out a little breathlessly, as if she was well and truly shocked.
“Hello, Grace,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
* * *
Grace Alberts recognized the familiar masculine baritone immediately. It rumbled clear through to her bones. She registered her ex-husband’s tall, commanding physique, his lean muscles, his broad shoulders. He’d always had a startling gaze, with an intensity that made her feel like she was the only person in the room. Make that on the planet. Her breath hitched as that same electrifying feeling coursed through her now, turning her already frayed nerves to dust.
So he was attractive. He was also ornery, prone to giving advice, and stubborn as a mule. Worse, he’d checked out—mentally, that is—at the time she’d needed him most.
Yes, they’d truly hurt each other back in the day, when they’d been so young and hopeful and innocent. Her gut twisted, wrung out with the pain of it still.
Despite the fact that her heart had just taken off like a racehorse at the starting bell, her palms were sweating, and she felt a bit dizzy, she attributed it all to stress. It had been a long book tour, and she was exhausted. The bookstore was packed, and even the windows were fogging up from everyone breathing.
Yes, the crowd! She had books to sign, children to meet who were waiting for her despite the treacherous weather. She had no time for pesky but handsome exes.
Philly was her last commitment before taking off for the holiday, and it was an important one. She was the headliner at a book signing and party tomorrow at the Children’s Hospital. People were counting on her to show up, and she would do anything not to disappoint a child, much less an ill one. After that, she would fake her way through enjoying the holiday with her half sister and her family until she could get back to her apartment in New York.
“Graham.” Dammit, she hadn’t meant to sound like that, breathy and surprised and even a little relieved, as if she’d been waiting for him—which she absolutely had not been, even though she knew he often did business in Boston, and she’d wondered deep in her mind if maybe he’d show…
But that was ridiculous. She’d gotten over any sense of comfort his presence used to bring. She’d succeeded all on her own these past two years. There were just so many leftover feelings. It would just take time. The holidays are always hard, she reminded herself. She would get through this one just like she had all the others, even though her family, unlike his, left a lot to be desired.
“I’m sure I can rent a car,” she told him. “Thanks anyway.” She could not drive with him. That would be catastrophic. Not to mention uncomfortable. She’d pass on the ride, thanks very much.
“I’ll call for a rental, if that’s what you want,” Monica said, eyeballing Graham, like nearly every woman on the planet. With thick, wavy hair, strong, handsome features, and dressed in work clothes and a wool coat that fit him like a glove, he was a gorgeous man. Grace didn’t blame Monica for looking. But that didn’t stop her from feeling like the most popular girl in school was attempting to take her prom date home.
“Sure, that would be great,” Grace said, then flicked her gaze in what she hoped was a casual, friendly manner back to Graham. “Thanks for the offer. It was kind of you.”
Kind. He didn’t look kind, he looked feral. She perused his thick hair, cut in a businesslike style but which sat just on the edge of unruly, and his thick brows that were, at the moment, so deeply knit they cast an air of danger over his face. The steely set of his jaw was offset by a dimple that only showed when he smiled, which wasn’t often, thank God. His deep brown eyes were boring through her, like they had in the old days, filled with so much unspoken emotion, it took her breath away.
Intense dislike, that was what it was. She’d been despondent after they’d lost their son. It had taken a while to figure out she’d been suffering from postpartum depression. But by then, Graham had started working more and more. Grief had torn them apart, and they hadn’t been able to find their way back to one another.
“You look—you look well,” she said. Oh God. That might’ve been the stupidest thing she’d ever said.
“You too,” he said, never taking his eyes off her.
Truth was, he looked like sin. Like every fantasy she’d ever had. He looked amazing. After all they’d been through, how could she still feel the tug of him so strongly?
“Well, I’ll be going, then. Great to see you, Grace.” He cast her one last glance she felt clear through to her toes before he turned to go. Everything they’d left unsaid felt as heavy as a winter wool blanket.
“Graham, wait. Let me sign a book—for Emmy.” She loved his little niece and knew she was a big fan because Emmy wrote her letters and told her so. In them, she also expressed her disappointment in their divorce. Grace couldn’t fix that for her, but she could keep her stocked in books as best she could.
He was already walking away and didn’t seem to hear. Disappointment rifled through her. Outside the windows, snow was coming down in furious swirls and driving flurries, as chaotic as her thoughts. She took a big breath, trying to channel calmness.
Monica was back, looking at her phone and frowning. “No rental cars available. Only compact models.”
“Amtrak? Greyhound? Private driver?” Grace asked.
“Excuse me, Monica,” a familiar voice said. Grace looked up, startled, to find Graham back at her side. The light touch of his hand on her elbow seared clear through to her skin. “Just come with me,” he said to Grace in his usual firm, confident way, not letting go. “Despite everything that’s happened between us, you can still trust me to keep my word. I’ll get you to Philly on time.”
“Grace, you’re welcome to ride out the storm with my family,” Monica said, darting a contrary glance at Graham. “My folks would love having you. You can travel to Philly right after Christmas, when the weather calms down.”
Grace looked past Monica to Graham, who wore his usual stoic expression. At one time, she’d trusted him with everything—her hopes and dreams, her greatest fears, her deepest sorrows. But all that had been eroded, and they rarely even spoke to each other now except when they had to.
Maybe going with him now could enable them to mend some of the hurt between them. Maybe fate was giving them an opportunity to smooth over some of the sharp edges of their relationship.
Lest she get too mushy, surely after they spent a few hours together, reality would set in. She’d remember all the reasons they’d divorced, instead of everything getting muddled and blurred by the intense bodily reaction he still stirred in her.
Either way, she could survive anything for five hours, and she’d get to Philly on time. The extra bonus was that he was a confident and experienced driver in bad weather. “It’s okay,” she said to Monica. “I’ll ride with Graham.”
Something flashed in his eyes. Maybe he felt a little triumphant, or perhaps just glad of the rare opportunity to torture her for five hours straight. Or maybe he felt the same nagging pull she did, to make amends and to heal old wounds. After all, that was what Christmas was for.