Memories Under the Mistletoe

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Chapter One

Proposing on Christmas Day? Not very original Liam.

Melanie Edwards took a sip of ice water and discreetly glanced around the busy, yet quiet dining area of the posh Los Angeles restaurant. Most everyone seated around the restaurant were engaged in conversation, wrapped up in foodie ecstasy, or had their nose buried in their phone. The clink of polished silverware in the manicured hands of L.A.’s most affluent citizens rang louder than the soft hum of polite conversation. With no one paying the least bit of attention to her, she subtly turned Liam’s cell clockwise until it had gone one-eighty, its face still lit up from the text his brother had just sent him, because she sure as shit hadn’t read it correctly.

Proposing on Christmas Day? Not very original Liam.

Mel snatched her hand away as though the cell had burned her.

The text read the same turned right-side up as it had upside down. She hadn’t read it wrong, as she’d originally thought.

With a small, brittle smile on her face she flagged their young waiter down and asked for a glass of Chardonnay. Her heart was bouncing against her chest like a speed bag being pummeled by an MMA fighter.

She pushed Liam’s cell back to his side of the small table, making sure to face it the way he’d left it, and settled back in her cushioned chair to wait for him to return from the restroom. Her thoughts tumbled over the idea of being engaged by the end of the year, and though she’d seen the text with her own eyes, she was having the hardest time digesting the obvious.

Liam planned to propose on Christmas. If he’d already decided this was the route he was going to take, he wouldn’t change his mind. Once Liam’s mind was set on doing something, he did it. Probably because, if he’d made up his mind, he’d put a lot thought behind the decision and he’d already weighed the pros and cons to within an inch of their life.

Proposing. Wow. Seemed a little premature to her. They had been dating for nearly a year, and just three weeks ago he’d asked her to move into his condo. Apparently, her polite decline hadn’t deterred him in the least. No, he was still rounding third, hoping to slide right over home plate, even though she’d called for a time out.

Liam Michael Marks never gave up on something he’d set his sights on.

The fact that he was going to propose to her wasn’t as farfetched as her nervous system was making it out to be. No reason to flip your shit, Mel. This is just the natural course of two people in love. Shouldn’t she feel a little differently if that were the case? Shouldn’t she be battling to keep a straight face when he settled back down at their table, or hard-pressed not to blurt out a yes before the third course arrived?

Proposing on Christmas Day? Not very original Liam.

Her boyfriend of ten months was going to propose. In a little less than two weeks.

Okay. Maybe a touch of panic was acceptable. Just a smidge.

Many of her friends back home in South Dakota were married, but her friends here in Los Angeles, where she was currently working as a senior blog contributor to the wildly popular Live, Laugh, Love magazine, were decidedly not. By choice. The friends she’d made here in the city had likely burned their bras in middle school and taken a blood oath to stay single well into their thirties, if not beyond. They’d dug their red, manicured nails in the California sand and refused to cross that line.

Who could argue their case against marriage? How many crash and burns had she witnessed in the past four years working at Live, Laugh, Love from those who had crossed that line? From behind the smudge-free glass wall of their meeting room they’d watched Bridget’s marriage crumble in a mere matter of months, all due to a horrible mother-in-law and something about a cat that Bridget’s new husband had been allergic to.

Shock and awe had swerved through the magazine’s headquarters when it became clear that Bridget had chosen the cat over her new husband. Not exactly how Mel would have gone about things, but hey, not her biz. She was sure there was more to the situation that Bridget wasn’t sharing.

At least she hoped there was more.

Carrie Schrott just got divorced, and she and her now ex-husband had cited the very unoriginal irreconcilable differences in their divorce settlement. Those two words told people nothing, but from what Mel and her co-workers had heard in the break room, Carrie had found her husband of nearly three years boring in the sack. A few well-placed snickers and coughs had accompanied that bit of news. Boring in the sack? Seriously? This coming from a woman who still wore silk shirts with the conjoined bow tie hanging down the front.

Ouch.

Renee from human resources had just thrown a dress burning party, which had apparently become a thing during the past few years while Mel had been hiding under a rock. She’d honestly never heard of such a thing until Renee had invited her to the party last month. Renee had even hired a professional photographer to capture the entire event. She first donned her original wedding dress for a few snapshots, but once those were taken, that’s when the real party started. She then spray-painted the word adulterer all over the gorgeous designer wedding gown, and after a round of graffiti pictures, the silk got tossed into the inevitable bonfire, where she and her friends—Mel included—had danced around the fire as though the dress had become a sacrifice to an ancient deity.

The primeval god of dead relationships.

It turned out a lot of women worshipped that particular god, and surprisingly, the pictures turned out gorgeous. Absolutely breathtaking. Mel had spent an entire evening looking at dress burning party boards on Pinterest, and by the time she was done, she knew exactly what she was going to do if she ever got divorced. Of course, she’d have to get married first, which brought her mind right around to what was making her want to bite the dark burgundy polish off her newly manicured nails.

Proposing on Christmas Day? Not very original Liam.

The waiter brought her Chardonnay, and she caught sight of Liam approaching the table. Ancient deity of dead relationships, pfft. Who said romance was dead? From where she sat, romance looked pretty damned good.

Tall, broad-shouldered, and extremely handsome, her boyfriend was the epitome of any woman’s fantasy. He had a secure, well-paying job at his family’s business, Craig Marks and Sons. He was well spoken, had a great sense of humor, and was sharp, witty and intelligent. Not to mention thoughtful.

Those dark brown eyes of his helped, as did the fact that he enjoyed CrossFit. The muscles of his chest and arms could barely fit under that expensive suit jacket of his. They pushed at the fabric, and Mel noted several appreciative female glances leave the lure of social media as he walked by, checking out what CrossFit could do to a man’s body. Yes, ma’am. A handsome, virile man in a suit, his future—hers also, if she said yes—bright and unobstructed.

So why wasn’t she ecstatic about learning he was going to propose?

Because romance wasn’t dead, but it sure as hell was time-stamped. Even her gorgeous, saint of a mother could attest to that.

Liam took the chair across from her, using the palm of his hand to keep his blue satin tie from falling into the coffee he’d ordered after their last course, as he lowered himself into his seat. “Did I miss anything?” he asked with a smile.

Hell yes you did. She set her cell on the ivory linen tablecloth, as though she’d been engulfed in Facebook or emails while he’d been gone and would never have noticed his own cell lighting up. As if a woman would ever miss such a thing on their boyfriend’s phone. She picked up her Chardonnay. When Liam eventually saw that text from Patrick, he was going to wonder if she’d seen it at all. If he asked her, she was going with a hard no on that question. “Thought I’d indulge a little,” she said, indicating her wine. “Congratulations on your sale today.”

Always the type to appear slightly bashful at a compliment, though she knew deep down he absolutely craved praise, he shrugged and put his attention on folding his napkin. Closing a real estate deal that landed his firm six percent on a multi-million dollar listing wasn’t anything to be shy about. But that was Liam. He never bragged, he just let his success speak for him.

He finally met her gaze and gave her that boyish grin of his. That small tilt of his lips that said, “Aw, shucks, paw, I was only doin’ what was right”, and picked up his coffee. “Thank you. I think I impressed even my father today.”

Which was not an easy feat, and a point Liam rarely made. He’d been trying to grab his hard-working father’s attention since he could walk, though most of the time, like his other siblings, he was unsuccessful. One sure way to get his father to pay him any attention was to make money and make money often, which Liam was quickly becoming proficient at.

She’d never had to earn her mom’s affection, but there’d been a time she’d have jumped through a flaming hoop to gain the affection of a certain boy when he’d gone off to college. Even though several years had passed since she’d been that girl, she nearly blushed at the memories.

She had an idea on how Liam felt. She tried to imagine fighting for someone’s attention her entire life, with someone who was supposed to love you regardless, and knew it had to have been tough on an impressionable young boy. She’d certainly seen Liam’s internal scars. “I’m sure you did.”

Liam gave her a small smile before checking his phone. Immediately his lips thinned into a harsh line, and his gaze snapped up to meet hers. He looked at her with more than a question on his face. He looked sick to his stomach.

She felt sick to her stomach. “What? Is something wrong?” She put down her Chardonnay and leaned forward. Don’t over-react. Don’t blow his surprise. “Is everything okay?”

“No. I mean yes. Yes. Everything is great. I was just…” He clicked a button to make his cell go black and slipped it into his jacket pocket, his face ashen. “It was nothing. I was going to tell you something and I completely forgot what I was going to say.”

Well, at least she knew he was a lousy liar. Perhaps men learned to lie better as they grew older.

She didn’t want to ruin his surprise proposal, even if she wasn’t sure how she was going to respond. Liam loved surprises—giving them, not receiving them, because he always liked being prepared—and she didn’t want to let on that she knew what he was planning. “Oh.” She settled back in her chair. “You looked shocked for a second. You’re sure everything is okay?”

This time his smile was a little more relaxed, since he likely figured his secret proposal was safe. “Yes. Sorry.”

She took another dainty sip of Chardonnay. It’d be nice if she had a beer so she could kick one back. Like her boss always said: you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. Sometimes having been raised in a small town showed. Problem was, if she ordered a beer, she might actually chug it, and that’s not where she wanted the night to go. She wasn’t in Pine Grove, South Dakota, and this wasn’t a kegger.

He leaned forward. “I was thinking. Maybe we could do Christmas at my parent’s place this year.”

Mel stared at him, blinking a few times before she figured she’d stared without speaking for too long. So he didn’t just want to propose, he wanted to drag an audience into it? Keep your cool. Don’t act weird. His parents usually vacationed for the holidays anyway. Nothing to get overly worked up over. “They’re not going on their usual cruise for Christmas?” she asked nonchalantly, the pitch of her voice a little off.

“No,” he answered, surprising her once again. “They’re celebrating Christmas at their cabin in Tahoe. My entire family will be there, including my cousins from Florida. Even Tony said he’ll make it. You think Cindy will let you have a few extra days off from work to make the trip? I know it’s last minute, but I really want to take you home and show you off.”

You mean take me home and propose. In front of everyone. My God, his Aunt Teresa will absolutely crucify me. Never having kids of her own, his Aunt Teresa had taken Liam under her wing and coddled him more than his mother ever could. From what Mel had gleamed from Liam’s brothers, their Aunt Teresa approved of no one when it came to the three of them. All Mel could envision was an absolute shitshow followed by an impromptu proposal.

“I’ll ask her,” she promised casually. Cindy, her boss and close friend, was going to flip her shit when Mel told her the news. Like Mel’s mother, Cindy had married young, popped out kids like a Redenbacher popcorn bag, and found herself raising three children all by herself when her marriage had fallen apart.

Mel’s mom had raised Mel and her three brothers all on her own, and that was before Mel’s father had the decency to leave the house.

And now Mel was facing a possible trip down the aisle of doom.

The truth was slowly slipping past her shock. A proposal in front of his entire family. Made sense. When Liam did something, he certainly didn’t half-ass it.

For several minutes Mel sat in her chair, an uncomfortable silence settling between them as they waited for their main course.

If she were being honest with herself, she’d been putting the brakes on Liam for several weeks now. He was right to want to take their relationship to the next level. Moving in together would be the next appropriate course of action, but she’d inched away from making a commitment to consolidate. But this? There was no inching away from this. She wasn’t sure she wanted to get married without finding out what it was like to live with that person. Her saying no to moving in together should have given him a clue as to what she might say to a proposal.

Liam was trying to skip a step. He was line-jumping.

She’d always known his parents wouldn’t agree with her moving in with him before marriage. Very Christian and very traditional, they were likely pushing him toward the aisle. To them, he wouldn’t be skipping a step at all. Maybe that’s why he was going to propose. Shit. He’d probably been pushed to ask her to marry him if he’d brought up the fact that he’d asked her to move in with him to any of his family. They’d have recoiled from the idea. To them first came love, then came marriage, then came moving in together, then came a baby in a—

“Melanie? Where do you see yourself in five years?” he asked, snapping her out of a vision of a large wedding complete with his Aunt Teresa bossing her around for months and his mother insisting that Mel wear white.

“Huh?”

He smiled patiently. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Just before Liam had finished his question, the waiter interrupted him mid-sentence and asked Liam if he would like a glass of wine with his main course. Without even looking up, Liam waved him off, very obviously displeased at the interruption.

Mel cringed inwardly and immediately looked up at the waiter with the brightest smile she could muster. “No, thank you.” She wanted to apologize to the waiter, but after a quick nod, he was off and checking on other tables before she could get the words out. She gave Liam a look, and knowing why she was giving him a look, he only shrugged. She sighed and let his rude behavior go. The waiter was likely accustomed to the way the upper crust spoke to and treated others. Her own rose-colored glasses had sure slipped off after having lived in the city for several years. “I guess I haven’t thought about it.”

“Nothing like the present.”

Sometimes he was pushy, which was probably why he was a good real estate agent. Unfortunately he brought his selling face home and showed it to her every now and again.

Their main course was in front of them before she could answer Liam’s question. Their waiter set down an elegant plate of chicken and asparagus in front of her, and a dish of duck accompanied with vegetables covered in a sweet and sour sauce in front of Liam. The servings were tiny, just like the courses that had come before this.

She’d been starving when they’d sat down at the table, but now she wasn’t sure she could choke down the food. Mel cleared her throat, slightly uneasy as to where this conversation could go. “Uh, I guess I’d like a few kids. A house out in the suburbs so we could be near a nice school.” Growing up, she’d always envisioned the same things, only she’d envisioned them in Pine Grove. On a small ranch. Five kids. John. She cleared her throat. “Two-car garage. Dog. A Golden Retriever to be precise.”

Maybe she was more country than she thought. Liam probably wanted a condo, so he wouldn’t have to deal with yardwork. And kids? He’d never mentioned them, but he did have a few nephews that he patted on the head whenever they visited his real estate office. And a dog? She glanced at that expensive suit of his. Yeah. She might have lost him on the dog. His mother had two Shih Tzus, and Liam hated them. Absolutely loathed them.

Probably because his mother treated those two dogs better than she did her husband and kids put together. Mel suddenly heard her mother’s voice admonishing her for being petty, so Mel tried to think about his family without judging.

She finally looked at his face to gauge his reaction. He was staring at her, those dark brown eyes of his intense, his body as rigid as a wax doll. It was as though he’d been frozen in time. Either she’d hit the nail on the head or he was trying to figure out a polite way to break up with her. At the moment, she wasn’t sure which scenario she preferred.

He said nothing, so she countered, “You?”

He slipped his napkin under the table and placed it over his lap with a precision that made her want to grind her teeth. “I think kids are great—a few years down the road.”

“We’re close to thirty,” she reminded him, thinking she’d just pound the point home that they weren’t ready to say, “I Do”. She didn’t want to end their relationship, she just wanted him to slow down a bit. It was obvious to her that they weren’t on the same page with what they wanted in life. Maybe they were better staying where they were. Forever might not agree with them.

Hell, forever rarely agreed with anyone.

“We’ll have to come to an agreement on an animal.” He looked up at her. “I like fish. I had an aquarium when I was a kid.”

He’d had an aquarium as a kid? He just said he liked fish. Not exactly cuddlers, and certainly not the type of animal you could take adorable pictures of and slap all over Instagram. This was the year of the floppy-eared puppy and the yawning kitten. No one took pictures of their cute fish and followed it up with a hashtag.

A few gasps and one surprised, high-pitched squeal tore their attention away from their exciting gills or paws debate. A woman seated two tables down from them held her hands together against her mouth as her boyfriend—oh Lord. Proposal at table four. Cue the oohs and aahs.

Mel couldn’t hear the exact words the kneeling man uttered, but the young woman nodded her head and got to her feet the same second the man did, a tearful smile on her face. The couple embraced, and the dining area was drowned in the upper crust golf clap of people who were too well bred to make a little noise.

Liam, who’d turned completely around in his chair to watch the spectacle, turned back to her and gave her a huge smile. “You know what? A small dog might not be such a bad idea.”

A beer. She really needed a beer.

_______

Carrying two grande peppermint mochas made with soy, heavy on the whip, Mel felt a little more like herself as she headed down the main hallway of Live, Laugh, Love’s Headquarters the next morning. As always, Mel had freaked out a little when it came to something she hadn’t seen coming, and frankly, finding out Liam was going to propose had been a shocker, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

Who wouldn’t be shocked at finding out their boyfriend had plans on proposing Christmas morning? Especially in front of his entire family, of whom she didn’t think particularly liked her. Who wouldn’t be slightly shocked and dismayed and…oh, hell with it. Who was she kidding? She couldn’t talk herself down anymore, which was why she was carrying coffee for two and making a bee-line for Cindy’s office.

She wasn’t entirely sure she was going to say yes to his proposal, or if she was even going to accompany him to his parent’s cabin for Christmas. She just didn’t know what to do, and a mostly sleepless night hadn’t helped her decision-making skills.

She heaved out a sigh of frustration as she slipped through the cracked door of Cindy’s office and approached her pristine glass desk. Cindy, her newly prescribed reading glasses on the tip of her nose, glanced up at Mel when she set the peppermint mocha directly in front of her and took a military step back. The drink had been Mel’s favorite since she’d been in high school, and she’d gotten Cindy hooked on it as well.

This was Mel’s way of saying help. Please.

Cindy looked over her stylish black-rimmed glasses, her expression somewhere between “Get the hell out of my office” and “I’m slightly intrigued by what I might hear”. Mel guessed Cindy was feeling a little of both when her friend sighed and said, “Let me guess. There’s something you want to talk to me about and it absolutely cannot wait.”

This was precisely how they began all of their serious conversations. Mel’s offering of a mocha, her pulling a chair up to the desk, and then saying something like, “I don’t know what to do” or “You’re not going to believe this”. Mel could get a little dramatic at times. Cindy, on the other hand, never got dramatic. She was always calm, cool and collected, which was why their serious discussions always revolved around Mel’s life.

Cindy was twelve years older than Mel’s grand old age of twenty-six, and she’d usually been there and done that. Knowing Cindy had once been married and never intended to go that route ever again—even if it meant securing global peace—Mel knew where to find good advice. Of course, Mel always had to overlook the ingrained cynicism that was now a part of Cindy’s moral fiber. There was no getting around that.

Might as well get straight to the point, since it looked as though Cindy were busy. “Liam is planning on asking me to marry him Christmas morning.” When Cindy said nothing and didn’t look particularly shocked, Mel added, “In front of his entire family.”

Cindy still hadn’t blinked or given any indication that the news could be unsettling in any way. In fact she shrugged and said, “Say no. Trust me on that.”

Well, that was blunt. It took a few seconds for Mel to recover and find her voice. She should be used to Cindy’s personality by now, but her friend certainly had a way of wording things that took a moment to digest, and sometimes her bluntness threw Mel off-guard. “I’m thinking I might, but then I’m not sure. If I say no, I’m guessing our relationship is probably over.” She slowly lowered herself into a chair in front of the desk. “He’s already been pushing me to move in with him and I’ve stayed at my own condo because I’m super comfortable there. I can do whatever I want whenever I want. I mean, who wants to give up that freedom?”

Having grown up with three brothers, Mel adored her freedom. She was hard-pressed to relinquish it. She didn’t want to share a bathroom. Didn’t want to lose the one space on this planet where she could go and shut the door to the outside world and go on a Netflix binge. She cleared her throat. “On the other hand, he’s a great catch.”

Cindy snatched the reading glasses off her face and sat back in her chair. “A great catch? He’s not a fish, Mel. He’s a grown man.”

“Oh, God, please don’t mention fish.”

“I’m not even going to ask.” Cindy sighed and picked up her mocha, taking a sip before she continued. “You’re not at all cynical like I am, and yet you’re thinking of telling Liam no.” She shook her head as though she were trying to figure out the problem. “I thought you liked him?”

Mel gave her a look that said ‘bingo!’ and pointed a finger at her. “Exactly. I like him. To say yes to a proposal shouldn’t I love him? You know, the way Carrie talked about her fiancé before they got married. She’d said they couldn’t stand to be apart even during the work day. She made us all sick with her lovey-dovey talk. I don’t talk like that about Liam. Not even close.”

“First of all, Carrie’s an idiot. Second of all, Carrie and Jeff are not who we should be referring to when talking about possible relationship plateaus—they’re divorced. Besides, you’ve said you loved Liam in the past. Haven’t you told him you loved him? You certainly told me a number of times. Do you not love him anymore?”

She loved his body. His work ethic. Sure, she loved him. He was a great guy. “Yes, but I saw this text from his brother last night, about Liam’s surprise proposal, and now I don’t know how I feel.”

The side of Cindy’s mouth tilted up. “You snooped on his phone? Red flag.”

Mel shook her head emphatically. They’d had this conversation before. Cindy was a huge believer that if a woman snooped on her partner’s cell, their relationship was close to ending. Snooping, to Cindy’s way of thinking, meant the woman didn’t trust her man. Which meant she didn’t think much of his character. Snooping was the death of a relationship. “No, I didn’t snoop. He was in the bathroom and left his cell on the table. I just…leaned over a little. Peeked, at the most.”

“You snooped.”

“Anyway,” Mel said dismissively, “I’m not sure what to do. I don’t feel butterflies when I think about him, and I don’t get giddy when I see him. Shouldn’t I feel those things?” She took a sip of her mocha and did her best not to look forlorn. Liam was a perfect catch. Absolutely perfect. As she’d sat across from him at dinner last night she’d tried to come up with one reason not to marry him. Just one thing about him that would stop her—or any woman—from marrying him.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing came to mind.

Sure, she found certain things about him annoying. Like his OCD when it came to cleanliness. She was a neat-freak herself, but he took house and car care to a whole new level. She didn’t know anyone else who got their car detailed every other month. His car was spotless, and he worked diligently to keep it that way. He didn’t even have kids or a dog to mess it up. But that would change if they tied the knot, wouldn’t it? What would he do if one of his kids spilled cereal or juice in his Mercedes? What if that Golden Retriever she’d talked about jumped into his car with muddy paws? Liam would likely shit himself.

“You’ve been watching too many Hallmark movies. That’s just not real life, Mel. You’re twenty-six, not seventeen. Older people don’t get giddy. We’re too jaded for that shit.” Cindy slipped her reading glasses back on her nose, a distasteful look on her face. “Speaking of, how old do these make me look?”

The change in topic jarred Mel enough to make her wince. She tried to steer the conversation back to what was important. “Cindy, you should hear Samantha in advertising talk about meeting her fiancé. She literally used the word butterflies and told me she knew she was going to marry him from the second she saw him.”

“Seriously, how old do I look?”

“You look like a sexy librarian. We’ve already gone over this.”

Cindy sat straighter in her chair, slipped the offending glasses off again, and motioned to her laptop with them. “I’m looking for a nostalgic piece to go on our blog the week leading up to Christmas. One article a day. I’m thinking outside of the box,” Cindy said, sweeping a hand through the air. “What if you went home for Christmas? The wreaths, the smell of pine, the small town feel.” She wiggled her eyebrows. “This proposal. You up for it?”

Again, Cindy had whipped the conversation in a different direction without breaking stride, casting Mel off balance. “Small town feel? That’s…wait, what?” she stuttered.

“Different,” Cindy offered. “Unique. I know we’re city-based and most of our readers wear heels, not boots, but people are really going for that rustic crap lately. If I hear one more woman talk about a DIY wood project I might vomit. But hey, it’s popular. Might as well jump on the train while it’s moving in that direction. We’ll just call it country chic.”

Mel wasn’t budging. She could steer conversations too. She hadn’t come in here to discuss the latest DIY Christmas wreath all the women were making. “Liam wants to go home to his parents, not mine. I’m not sure how nostalgic that would be for me. More like nerve-wracking. Especially since I’m not sure I’m going to say yes. That’s why I’m here with mocha.” She raised her to-go cup. “Remember?”

“If you pull this off I’ll transfer you from senior blog contributor to a column writer for the magazine. I need readers, Mel. I need people to purchase the magazine, be it the physical magazine or the digital. I need you to keep the readers interested throughout the last week of this holiday season. Convince them to buy subscriptions for last-minute presents. I mean, just think about it. Going home to South Dakota will do you good. You could, I don’t know, catch up with old friends.”

Mel got to her feet and glared down at Cindy, finally realizing what Cindy was up to. Mel wanted to believe her talent would get her to be a senior writer at the magazine, but she was beginning to lean towards something more suspect. She narrowed her eyes. “You want me to go home so I run into John.”

Not that the man hadn’t popped into her mind about a thousand times last night when she was trying to go to sleep. And why wouldn’t he? There was a time in her life when she’d thought—no, she’d known—that she was going to marry John Harrison. She’d just been proposed to, so yeah, John had crossed her mind. Didn’t mean anything.

Cindy looked genuinely shocked for a few seconds, and Mel totally bought into it, thinking she’d really offended her friend and boss, until Cindy’s face fell. “Damn. You’re finally starting to catch on to my devious mind. Pulling one over on you is going to get harder from here on out.”

Mel took a rapid intake of breath for that dramatic ah-ha! effect. “You do! You want me to run into John. That’s absurd. Like I’m going to run into him and all the pieces of my life are going to magically fit together.”

“What’s absurd is that a hot man with a fat bank account is going to propose to you and you walked into my office with your face scrunched up like you’d just walked by a Porta Potty at a busy construction site. I’m thinking you don’t love him at all. It’s like you said. Maybe you like him, but you don’t love him. After nearly a year together you should have some pretty solid feelings for him by now.”

“That’s…blunt.” As always.

“And likely accurate. But that John guy you used to talk about when you first moved to California? I remember your whole face lighting up when you talked about him. And trust me, you were worse than Carrie ever thought of being. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think John is for you. I think you remember butterflies with him and compare that to the mature way you’ve responded to Liam. And I really do need you to write this blog series, because we lose a lot of readers over the holidays. Your articles from a snowy, small country town might keep some of them around. Not to mention, when you run into John, you’ll finally realize that you’ve romanticized the past. Your going home will kill two birds with one stone. That’s the secret to success right there.”

Mel hadn’t thought about John in quite a while until last night. She’d been busy writing articles and keeping up with the Jones’. John was nothing like Liam. John was kind and hardworking, like Liam, but after that, they were polar opposites. Country versus city. Laid back versus fast-paced. Rusted Chevy versus spotless Mercedes. “Cindy, that’s so over. And to be honest, he was two years older than me and was always five steps ahead. He left for college and we talked for a while, but…yeah.” They’d grown apart. By the time John had come home from college she’d already gone off to college, and the rest, as they say, was history. Her heart hadn’t exactly broken as much as it had slowly run out of gas. “We only kissed once.”

Her mother told her that John had worked with his father and his brother, Mike, at their family-owned hardware store, and kept up his small ranch. Mel didn’t have a clue what he was up to now or if he was even single, nor did she particularly care. They’d been inseparable growing up, but they’d grown apart, as most childhood friends eventually did. She still had this goofy picture of the two of them sledding down Death-Drop Hill, a place where everyone took their sleds in the dead of winter, when they’d been teenagers, in her old photo album. Actually, she’d just seen that picture last week—

“That’s the look.”

Mel snapped out of her reminiscing and looked down at Cindy, confused. “Huh?”

“You were thinking about John, weren’t you?”

“So?”

“You got that same look on your face as you did when you talked about him years ago.”

She had? “Your point is moot. I’m not going home for Christmas.”

Cindy put on her business face. “Actually, you are. I need pictures of pine trees, snowy roads, and Christmas decorations. You once told me that they go all out in… Where are you from in South Dakota again?”

“Pine Grove.”

“Yeah. You said they used to decorate their Main Street like Santa threw up on it. Get me those pictures. Get me pictures of family and friends and a big turkey on the table for dinner. Plaid bows and cups of hot chocolate shared with the neighbor kids. Door-to-door caroling in a foot of fresh snow while freezing your ass off. You get the picture. If you give me a great story and great pictures, there’s a new office and a promotion in your future.”

Oh, she got the picture all right. She’d lived it before, and she certainly didn’t want to go back. “Cindy, please. I can’t.”

“I’m sending you on a working vacation as both your boss and your friend. Mel, you need to go home, even if it’s only to close that chapter of your life. You’re not excited about Liam’s proposal because you never let go of the image of John you’ve kept in your mind all these years.”

“Close that chapter of my… Are you serious? You honestly think I’m still hung up on John Harrison, a boy I crushed on when I was going through puberty and dated for a while in high school, and that’s why I’m not entirely sold on saying yes to Liam’s proposal?” The idea was entirely preposterous. “Cindy, I haven’t seen John in nearly eight years. I can promise you, he’s not the reason I’m conflicted.” This was the worst advice Cindy had ever given her, and likely the most dead-on observation she’d ever had. John’s memory had come up so many times last night she’d almost stalked him on social media when she got home. But that was beside the point. “You’re sucking at talking me down today. I should take that mocha back.”

Cindy leaned forward with her hands wrapped protectively around her mocha. “Okay then. Why aren’t you jumping up and down with the knowledge that one of L.A.’s most eligible and attractive bachelors is going to propose to you? If he’s not already a millionaire, he will be within the next year. They just did a spread on him in the paper. Give me just one good reason and I’ll call off the Christmas working vacation.”

Good question. Mel bit her lip and tried to come up with something. Her mind blanked. She’d struggled with this same question for hours as she lay in bed last night. She had to come up with something. She snapped her fingers and said energetically, “He wants to wait to have kids and doesn’t want any large dogs.”

Silence. Mel felt a little stupid. That had sounded a lot worse of an accusation in her head. Last night it had certainly felt worse. Her voice lowered, she mumbled, “He said a small dog was okay.”

Cindy didn’t blink. “My God. Kill him now.”

Mel sat down in the chair facing Cindy again. “I’m thinking we need something a little stronger than chocolate and peppermint for these talks.”

Cindy sat back with a smile, knowing she’d won this battle. “Call the piece, Home for the Holidays. It’s simple, to the point, and if you snap pictures of horse-drawn carriages and snowy pines and throw in some rustic wood signs, it’ll draw in readers. Oh, and make sure you get into some of those pictures. You’re young, gorgeous and you wear all those cute outfits with the…you know…scarves and boot socks and shit. Our blog readers have fallen in love with you over the years because you’re young, hip and independent. But don’t you worry about it if you go and get hitched. It doesn’t matter that girls say they cherish independence these days. Deep down they still want that one man who will curl their toes and take care of them forever.” Cindy paused to pretend-vomit. “Anyway, if Liam is still hell-bent on proposing to you, he’ll do it in front of your family, and if he does, make sure you record it. That’d be a great addition to your Home for the Holidays series. Give the readers a fantasy.” Cindy took in a breath and let it out slowly. “And man, Liam is a great fantasy. Did I ever tell you my ex was tall and dark?”

Wow. She never brought up her ex. “Um, no, and you just said I look like I’m in love when I talk about John, not Liam, so why do you think I’d say yes to his proposal? And who knows? John is probably married with two kids by now.” Highly unlikely, since her mother would have mentioned it. Still, Mel didn’t have Facebook, only Instagram. None of her brothers, her mother, or John had Instagram, which was exactly why she had it. She had no idea what John looked like or if he had a significant other.

Cindy shrugged. “I told you, I don’t think seeing John will make you swoon. I think it’ll do the opposite. He’s probably put on thirty pounds and has a bald spot taking over the top of his head. He’s not going to be the young, hot football player you remember, that’s for sure. One way or the other, I want those blog articles. Throw in a recorded proposal and we’ll be talking about an office on the twenty-third floor.”

That did sound nice, and Cindy didn’t bullshit. “A corner office with a view?”

Cindy snorted. “What do you think this is? Cosmo?”