The Christmas Countdown
Genre: Romance, Romantic Comedy
Publisher: FAC Publishing LLC
Date of Publication: 12/1/2018
Number of pages: 175
Word Count: 35k
Cover Artist: Ani Gonzalez
Tagline: A perfect Christmas in twenty-four hours? What could possibly go wrong…or unexpectedly go right?
For the residents of Holiday Lake, Minnesota, there is no such thing as too much Christmas cheer. The tiny town prides itself on celebrating the holiday every day of the year and their halls are decked with boughs of holly all year round.
Yet this December twenty-third, professional holiday decorator Nat Quinn, known as "The Christmas Queen”, has had enough. After a hectic year helping clients set up the absolutely-perfect-to-the-last-detail backdrops for the festive season, she is ready to relax. That’s when divorced billionaire and workaholic Cyrus Blackstone makes a proposal she can’t turn down: Provide the perfect holiday for his children in exchange for the beach vacation of her dreams.
A perfect Christmas in twenty-four hours? That’s a tall order, even for the Queen of Christmas and her team in Holiday Lake. As Nat races to fulfill her assignment, she realizes that the real challenge isn't the tinsel and pudding... it’s not falling in love.
CYRUS ENDED the call, satisfied. That was one action item taken care of.
He headed for a built-in mahogany cabinet that served as the study's bar and grabbed a bottle of scotch and a glass. A perfect Christmas with his kids. This was worth celebrating.
He sat on his desk chair and poured the amber liquid into the glass. The cut-glass pattern made everything sparkle, which was rather festive. Now all he had to do was get the kids on the plane. Everything else would be taken care of.
Happy as Cyrus was about giving his children the perfect Christmas, there was more to his feeling of jubilation. He smiled as he realized that the quirky holiday decorator had improved his mood. She seemed almost entirely too Christmassy to be real, but she also appeared to be someone you could count on, a quality that was lacking in this world.
He sipped his drink, feeling the fiery liquid slide down this throat. That had been a good negotiation.
And he was looking forward to the next one. As Nat had said, everyone wanted the perfect Christmas and it wasn't all that easy. An eleventh-hour version would, he was certain, encounter a few challenges, and he had a feeling he would enjoy maneuvering through them with Ms. Quinn. He felt a lot more confident after talking with her, like a weight had fallen off his back.
Leah walked into the studio, all well-tailored slacks and glossy hair. She definitely wasn't the slouchy sweater and Ugg boots type.
"The kids are packing," she said, a tinge of worry in her voice. "They sound really excited. Is she going to do it?"
"Of course," Cyrus replied. "Did you have any doubts?"
"Some," Leah exclaimed with a happy smile. "She was dead set against it. How did you convince her?"
"Money, flattery, and bottomless margaritas," he replied.
But that wasn't quite accurate. Ms. Quinn had given in when he'd mentioned his kids. That had been her weak spot. It made sense that a holiday specialist would be a sucker for kids. They were the point of her job, after all.
"How much do you know about this Nat Quinn, Leah?" He asked.
"She's fantastic," Leah answered, eyes shining. "You know Christmas is not my thing, so it takes quite a lot to wow me."
Cyrus nodded. Leah was Jewish, and she'd worked for some of the wealthiest families in Manhattan and London. She was notoriously hard to impress.
"But the Hagens hired me one week before Christmas and I was blown away. We drove up to the lodge and it looked amazing with a ten-foot-tall tree, garlands everywhere, and Mrs. Hagen's favorite vintage German decorations. Ms. Quinn even found the large old-fashioned bulbs that Mrs. Hagen wanted. She had an intact set and everything."
Cyrus suppressed a smile. At least he wasn't demanding rare Christmas lights and antique ornaments. Ms. Quinn was likely relieved about that.
"Christmas dinner was divine," Leah continued. "The main restaurant has an all-year-round holiday buffet with a citrus cranberry chutney that is out of this world. You can use it as a sandwich spread for the leftovers too."
His nanny's eyes grew dreamy as she described the food.
"And the pastry shop makes this amazing Black Forest cake with cherry Kirsch." Leah gave a deep sigh of longing. "It has so much alcohol you can't drive after you eat it, but it is delicious. Absolutely worth being housebound afterwards."
"So you want to go back for the food?" Cyrus asked, swirling the amber liquid in his glass.
His question was greeted by an awkward silence.
Leah avoided his gaze. "Er, not exactly. The town is lovely and the people are, um, quite pleasant." She paused. "Particularly Ms. Quinn. She even gave us some Chinese food for Christmas Eve dinner, which was very thoughtful." Her eyes grew dreamy again. "The kung pao chicken was delicious. I hear the place closed though, which is a pity."
Cyrus smiled. "Let's hope Ms. Quinn can whip us something similar despite the time constraints. Given what we've given her to work with, we'll be lucky if she can find a Christmas tree."
"Oh, but I'm sure Noah's dad—"
Leah raised her hand to her mouth, eyes wide.
"Oh?" Cyrus raised a brow. "Who's Noah?"
A tinge of pink spread across her cheeks. "No one. I'll, er, go check on the kids now."
And she hurried out of the room.
Cyrus sipped his drink. Leah had been working for him for almost two years now, and she'd become part of the family. Yet he'd never seen her blush, not once.
Holiday Lake was going to be a lot more interesting than he'd expected.
He turned on his computer. A picture of his kids popped up on the screen. It was from the last time he'd taken Jack to the FDNY open house. His son stood in front of a fire truck grinning widely while his sister made bunny ears behind his head.
It was Cyrus’s favorite picture, partly because he'd made it to the field trip for a change, but mostly because Jack was wearing a t-shirt that read "Firefighters Like It Hot", seemingly oblivious to the double entendre.
Cyrus clicked on the Internet browser icon and waited for the program to load. An e-mail came as he waited. The sender was Nat Queen at TheChristmasQueen-dot-com and the subject line read "Contract for Immediate Signature." The words were punctuated with a dozen exclamation marks.
Ms. Quinn, it appeared, was quite efficient, a woman after his own heart.
When his browser window opened, he typed in "Nat Quinn Holiday Lake Minnesota." A surprisingly large number of sites popped up, most of them featuring the Christmas Queen motto and a mistletoe crown logo.
Ms. Quinn, it turned out, was a busy gal. She'd appeared on various morning shows, giving holiday decorating tips. She wrote a column on how to plan the perfect holiday. She had authored numerous magazine articles on virtually every challenge one could encounter during the holidays, and at least three of the articles dealt with gravy consistency. She had done sets for holiday movies.
No wonder she longed for a beach holiday. The poor woman must be exhausted. She even had a sponsorship agreement with a candle company. The ads boasted that her Citrus Cranberry Christmas Delight Candle was their all-time best-seller.
Well, there were worst things one could be remembered for.
He clicked on her website, TheChristmasQueen.com, and was immediately assaulted by loud music, The Carol of the Bells, if he was not mistaken.
It seemed the otherwise admirable Ms. Quinn had one serious character flaw: She was one of those people who had pop-up music on her website.
He muted the sound and scrolled down. There was another mistletoe crown logo, a recipe section, and several pictures of lavishly decorated houses.
Leah had not exaggerated. Ms. Quinn could put on a show. She'd even done a party with a real sleigh and live reindeer. He peered at the computer screen, jaw dropping in disbelief as he counted the animals. Eight reindeer, all suitably labeled. She'd done a holiday party with eight reindeer.
Maybe she could do Christmas in a day.
He kept browsing through her site. She had social media accounts with current pictures of the town. It had snowed recently and Holiday Lake could rightfully claim that it would be a white Christmas. The bakery that Leah loved was shaped like a Swiss chalet with twinkling lights and a giant Black Forest cake replica in front.
The Chinese restaurant, it turned out, was re-opening. Leah would no doubt be overjoyed. The Bavarian Brathaus sounded intriguing and the Holiday Lake Inn would be sponsoring a Christmas carol concert tomorrow night. The kids would enjoy that.
Holiday Lake seemed to have a fetish for measuring things. All their statistics were carefully noted on the various websites. They'd received sixteen inches of snow last week. The Holiday Lake Inn's all-you-can-eat turkey buffet had served seventeen gallons of citrus-cranberry chutney on December 26 of last year. Year-to-date, the tree farm had sold eight hundred and twenty-two trees.
He scrolled through the social media accounts and checked all the friends lists, but try as he might he could not find what he was looking for.
There were no clues as to Leah's mysterious Noah.
And there were no pictures of Nat Quinn. The Christmas Queen seemed surprisingly shy. No pictures of herself on her website. No selfies on her social media. Nothing.
But then he checked the images search tab and found that the local Christmas tree vendors had a picture of her. The image was blurry, so all he could make out was a slender woman standing next to an enormous Christmas tree, but clicking on the picture took him to the tree seller's website.
And there she was. Nat Quinn had filmed a television segment with Northstar Tree Farm, which had aired on the Minneapolis public television station. The tree farm had the video on its website.
He clicked play and sat back to watch.
Nat Quinn was a tall woman with bright red hair, green eyes, and a loud cheerful laugh. She knew more than any human being should about decorative conifers, and she could make a Christmas wreath in five minutes flat. She liked Balsam firs because they looked shaggy and natural, but she admired the Fraser fir's longevity. She wielded a chainsaw like a pro and she did not like artificial trees. As far as she was concerned, they were an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. She owned thirty-seven ugly Christmas sweaters and her favorite featured an unhappy-looking antlered Chihuahua. And she was single.
Cyrus found himself smiling. Nat Quinn was adorable.
She was also dead serious about Christmas.
She was the perfect choice for this job. Even the single part. Not that he cared, of course, not personally. It just left her free to concentrate on the job.
That was the important consideration here, the job.
But there was something. He scrolled up. He could swear he'd seen—
He laughed as he reached the top of the website. There it was in all its glory—The Northstar Tree Farm's Christmas tree counter.
And it read "zero."
There were no trees left. Zero balsams. Zero Frasers.
He was still laughing as he pulled up Nat's email, opened the contract, and affixed his electronic signature.
He couldn't wait to see what the Christmas Queen would do.
About the Author:
Ani Gonzalez is a USA Today bestselling author of holiday-themed romantic comedy and cozy mystery stories set in Banshee Creek, Virginia (The Most Haunted Town in the USA!) and Holiday Lake, Minnesota (Where Every Day is Christmas!). Her books feature feisty, irrepressible heroines dealing with holiday mayhem, paranormal critters (ghosts, cryptids, pagan gods...the sky's the limit) and mysteries. They find love and laughter (and sometimes corpses) along the way, and readers get to follow them every step.
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