One More for Christmas
United Kingdom

October 29, 2020



USA

October 6, 2020



One More For Christmas

A brand new festive read from Sarah Morgan - coming in October!

For sisters Samantha and Ella Mitchell, Christmas is their most precious time of the year—a time for togetherness, love and celebration. Most of all, it’s about making up for everything their childhood Christmases lacked. But this year, they’ll be buying presents for the most unexpected guest of all—their estranged mother. It’s been five years since they last saw each other. But when their mother calls out of the blue and promises that this Christmas will be different, Samantha and Ella cautiously agree to spend it all together…

Gayle Mitchell is at the top of her career, but her success has come at a price—her relationship with her daughters. She never seemed to say or do the right things. Her tough-love approach was designed to make them stronger, but instead managed to push them away…until a brush with her own mortality forces Gayle to make amends. As the snowflakes fall on their first family celebration in years, the Mitchell women must learn that sometimes facing up to the past is all you need to heal your heart…

Read an Excerpt


Reviews

"Morgan expertly avoids cliché and easy fixes, resulting in a deeply believable portrait of a family relearning how to love each other. Readers will be delighted." Starred Review Publishers Weekly



Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Gayle

When Gayle Mitchell agreed to a live interview in her office, she hadn’t expected her life to fall apart in such a spectacular fashion in front of an audience of millions. She was used to giving interviews and had no reason to think that this one might end in disaster, so she sat relaxed, even a little bored, as the crew set up the room.

As usual, the lights were blinding and kicked out enough heat to roast a haunch of beef. Despite the frigid air-conditioning, the fabric of Gayle’s fitted black dress stuck to her thighs.

Beyond the soaring glass walls of her office lay what she truly believed to be the most exciting city on earth. Also one of the most expensive—but these days Gayle didn’t have to worry too much about that.

Once, the place had almost killed her, but that had been a long time ago. That memory contributed to the degree of satisfaction she felt in being up here, on top of the world, gazing down from her domain on the fiftieth floor. Like planting a stiletto on the body of an adversary, it was symbolic of victory. I won. She was far removed from those people scurrying along the freezing, canyon-like streets of Manhattan, struggling to survive in a city that devoured the weak and the vulnerable. From her vantage point in her corner office she could see the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Center and, in the distance, the broad splash of green that was Central Park.

Gayle shifted in her chair as someone touched up her hair and makeup. The director was talking to the cameraman, discussing angles and light, while seated in the chair across from her the most junior female reporter on the morning show studied her notes with feverish attention.

Rochelle Barnard. She was young. Early twenties? A few years older than Gayle had been when she’d hit the lowest point of her life.

Nothing excited Gayle more than raw potential, and she saw plenty of it in Rochelle. You had to know what you were looking for, of course—and Gayle knew. It was there in the eyes, in the body language, in the attitude. And this woman had something else that Gayle always looked for. Hunger.

Hunger was the biggest motivator of all, and no one knew that better than her.

She hadn’t just been hungry—she’d been starving. Also desperate. But usually she managed to forget that part. She was a different woman now, and able to extend a hand to another woman who might need a boost.

“Ten minutes, Miss Mitchell.”

Gayle watched as the lighting guy adjusted the reflector. In a way, didn’t she do much the same thing? She shone a light on people who would otherwise have remained in the dark. She changed lives, and she was about to change this woman’s life.

“Put the notes down,” she said. “You don’t need them.”

Rochelle glanced up. “These are the questions they want me to ask. They only handed them to me five minutes ago.”

Because they want you to stumble and fall, Gayle thought.

“Are they the questions you would have chosen to ask?”

The woman rustled through the papers and pulled a face. “Honestly? No. But this is what they want covered in the interview.”

Gayle leaned forward. “Do you always do what other people tell you?”

Rochelle shook her head. “Not always.”

“Good to know. Because if you did, then you wouldn’t be the woman I thought you were when I saw you present that short segment from Central Park last week.”

“You saw that?”

“Yes. Your questions were excellent, and you refused to let that weasel of a man wriggle out of answering.”

“That interview was the reason you asked for me today? I’ve been wondering.”

“You struck me as a young woman with untapped potential.”

“I’m grateful for the opportunity.” Rochelle sat straighter and smoothed her skirt. “I can’t believe I’m here. Howard usually does all the high-profile interviews.”

Why were people so accepting of adverse circumstances? So slow to realize their own power? But power came with risk, of course, and most people were averse to risk.

“Things are always the way they are until we change them,” Gayle said. “Be bold. Decide what you want and go after it. If that means upsetting a few people along the way, then do it.” She closed her eyes as someone stroked a strand of her hair into place and sprayed it. “This is your chance to ask me the questions Howard Banks wouldn’t think to ask.”

Which shouldnt be too hard, she thought, because the man had the imagination and appeal of stale bread.

Howard had interviewed her a decade earlier and he’d been patronizing and paternalistic. It gave Gayle pleasure to know that by insisting on being interviewed by this junior reporter she’d annoyed him. With any luck he’d burst a blood vessel in the most valuable part of his anatomy—which, for him, was probably his ego.

“If I don’t give them what they’re expecting, I could lose my job.”

Gayle opened one eye. “Not if you give them something better than they’re expecting. They’re not going to fire you if the ratings go up. What’s on their list? Let me guess… My work-life balance and how I handle being a woman in a man’s world?”

Boring, boring.

The woman laughed. “You’re obviously a pro at this.”

“Think of the people watching. Ask the questions theyd ask if they were in the room with me. If you were a woman eager to make a change in your life, what would you want to hear? If you were struggling to get ahead in the workplace—” which you are“—constantly blocked by those around you, what would you want to know?”

Rochelle picked up the papers from her lap and folded them in a deliberate gesture. “I’d want to know your secrets—how you handle it all. How you handled it at the beginning, before you had everything you have now. You started with nothing. Put yourself through college while working three jobs. And you’ve become one of the most successful women in business. You’ve transformed companies and individuals. I’d want to know whether any of your experiences might be of use to me. Whether you could transform me. I’d want to come away feeling so inspired I’d call the show and thank them.”

“And you think they’d fire you for that?”

The woman stared at her. “No, I don’t.” She slapped the papers down on the desk. “What is wrong with me? I’ve read all your books several times, and yet I was about to ask the questions I’d been handed. One of my favorite sections in your last book was that bit about other people’s expectations being like reins, holding you back. You were our role model in college.” She pressed her palm to her chest. “Meeting you is the best Christmas gift.”

“Christmas?”

“It’s only a few weeks away. I love the holidays, don’t you?”

Gayle did not love the holidays. She didn’t like the way everything closed down. She didn’t like the crowds on the streets or the tacky decorations. She didn’t like the uncomfortable memories that stuck to her like bits of parcel tape.

“Aren’t you a little old to be excited about Christmas?” she asked.

“Never!” Rochelle laughed. “I love a big family gathering. Massive tree. Gifts in front of the fire. You know the type of thing…”

Gayle turned her attention to the makeup artist, who was brandishing lipstick. “Not that horrible brown. Red.”

“But—”

“Red. And not an insipid washed-out red. I want a look at me red. I have the perfect one in my purse.”

There was much scrambling and an appropriate lipstick was produced.

Gayle sat still while the makeup artist finished her work. “This is your opportunity, Rochelle. Take it and ride it all the way home. If you make an impression on the public, your bosses won’t be able to hold you back.”

There.

Done.

Gayle had the power to give her a boost and she’d used it. She liked to give people the kind of chance she’d never been given. The rest was up to them.

“Five minutes, Ms. Mitchell.” The director scanned her shelves. “When we’ve finished the interview we might take a few stills for promotional purposes.”

“Whatever you need.” If her story inspired people, then she was happy. She wanted women to understand their own strength and power.

Rochelle leaned forward. “In case I don’t have a chance to thank you properly after, I just want to say how grateful I am for your support. Do you have any idea how inspiring it is to know that you live the life you talk about in your books? You’re the real deal. You’re right at the top of your game, but still you take the time to reach out and give others a helping hand.”

Her eyes glistened and Gayle felt a flash of alarm.

The helping hand didn’t come with tissues. Emotion had no place in designing a life. It clouded decision-making and influenced those around you. Gayle’s staff knew better than to bring emotion to a conversation.

Give me facts, give me solutions—dont give me sobbing.

Rochelle didn’t know that. “At college we had a mantra— what would GM do?” She blushed. “I hope you don’t mind that we called you that.”

Some said that GM stood for Great Mind, others Guru of Management. A few of her own staff thought it stood for Genetically Modified, but no one had the courage to tell her that.

Rochelle’s admiration continued to flow across the desk. “You’re afraid of nothing and no one. You’ve been an inspiration to so many of us. The way you’ve shaped your career, your life. You never apologize for the choices you make.”

Why should she apologize? Who would she apologize to?

“Use this opportunity, Rochelle. Did my assistant give you a copy of my next book?”

“Yes. Signed.” Rochelle appeared to have reined in her inner fangirl. “And I think it’s so cool that you have a male assistant.”

“I employ the best person for the job. In this case it’s Cole.”

Out of the corner of her eye she checked the desks of her top executives. She and Bill Keen were the only members of the company to have their own offices. The others worked in the bright open space that stretched the width of the building. Occasionally Gayle would survey her domain from the protection of her glass-fronted oasis and think, I built this myself, with nothing more than guts and a grim determination to survive.

The shiny globe of Simon Belton’s bald head was just visible above the top of his cubicle. He’d arrived before her that morning, which had boosted her mood. He was a hard worker, if a little lacking in truly innovative ideas. Next to him sat Marion Lake. Gayle had hired her the year before as head of marketing, but she was starting to think the appointment might have been a mistake. Just that morning Gayle had noticed her jacket slung casually over the back of her chair, its presence indicating that Marion was somewhere in the building.

Gayle’s mouth thinned. When she gave people a chance, she expected them to take it.

Even now, after all these years, people constantly underestimated her. Did they really think she’d see a jacket draped over the back of a chair and assume the owner was somewhere in the office? There had been no coffee on the desk, and Gayle knew that Marion couldn’t operate without coffee. And the place had the atmosphere of a cemetery. Marion had a loud voice and an irritating compulsion to use it frequently—a flaw possibly related to the volume of coffee she drank. If she had been anywhere in the vicinity, Gayle would have heard her.

She often thought she would have made an excellent detective.

“Going live in three minutes,” one of the film crew told her, and Gayle settled herself more comfortably, composing her features.

She’d done hundreds of interviews, both live and recorded. They held no fear for her. There wouldn’t be a single question she hadn’t already been asked a hundred times. And if she didn’t like a question, she simply answered a different one. Like everything else, it was a matter of choice. They weren’t in control—she was.

In her head she hummed a few bars of the Puccini opera she’d seen the week before. Glorious. Dramatic and tragic, of course… But that was life, wasn’t it?

Rochelle smoothed her hair and cleared her throat.

“Live in five, four, three…”

The man held up two fingers, then one, and Gayle looked at the young reporter, hoping her questions would be good. She didn’t want to have misjudged her.

Rochelle spoke directly to the camera, her voice clear and confident. “Hi, I’m Rochelle Barnard and I’m here at the offices of Mitchell and Associates in downtown Manhattan to interview Gayle Mitchell—more commonly known as GM to her staff and her legions of fans—one of the most powerful and celebrated women in business. Her last book, Choice Not Chance, spent twelve months at the top of the bestseller lists and her latest book, Brave New You, is out next week. She’s one of the leading authorities on organizational change, and is also known for her philanthropic work. Most of all she’s celebrated as a supporter of women, and just this week was presented with the coveted Star Award for most inspirational woman in business at a glitzy event right here in Manhattan. Congratulations, Ms. Mitchell. How does it feel to have your contribution recognized?”

Gayle angled her head, offering her best side to the camera. “I’m honored, of course, but the real honor comes from helping other women realize their potential. We’re so often told that we can’t compete, Rochelle, and as a leader my role is to encourage other women to challenge that view.”

She smiled, careful to portray herself as approachable and accessible.

“You’re known to be a fierce advocate for women in the workplace. What drives that?”

Gayle answered, the words flowing easily and naturally.

Rochelle threw a few more questions her way, and she handled those with the same ease.

“People either love you or hate you. There seems to be no middle ground. Does it worry you that some people consider you to be ruthless?”

“I’m tough, and I make no apologies for that,” Gayle said. “There are people who will always be threatened by the success of another, and people who shy away from change. I embrace change. Change is progress, and we need progress. Change is what keeps us moving forward.”

“In your company you run an internship program with one of the most generous packages of any industry. You also offer scholarships. Why have you chosen to invest in this area?”

Because once, a long time ago, when she’d been alone and desperate, she’d vowed that if she was ever in a position to help someone like herself, then she’d do it.

But she didn’t share that. Such an admission might easily be seen as weakness. And how could they possibly understand? This girl sitting opposite her had never experienced the hard grip of fear. Gayle knew how deeply those claws could bite. She understood that fear could make you a prisoner, holding you inactive. Breaking free of that wasn’t easy. She was willing to hand a key to a few worthy individuals.

“I see it as an investment…” She talked a little more about the role she’d played fighting for the underprivileged and saw Rochelle’s eyes mist with admiration.

“Some people think you’ve been lucky. How would you answer that?”

Not politely.

Luck had played no part in Gayle’s life. She’d made careful choices, driven by thought and not emotion. Nothing had happened by chance. She’d designed her life, and now it was looking exactly the way she wanted it to look.

“It’s easier to dismiss someone as ‘lucky’ than it is to admit that the power for change lies within the individual. By calling someone ‘lucky’ you diminish their achievement, and the need to do that often comes from a place of insecurity. Believing in luck absolves you of personal responsibility. Whatever you do in life, whatever your goals, it’s important to make active choices.”

She looked into the camera.

“If you’re feeling dissatisfied with your life, find a piece of paper right now and write down all the things you wish were different. You don’t like your life? Do something about it! You envy someone? What do they have that you don’t? How do you want your life to look? Deciding that is the first step to redesigning it.”

Rochelle was nodding. “Your last book, Choice Not Chance, changed my life—and I know I’m not alone in that.”

“If you have a personal story we’d all love to hear it…”

Gayle drew in the audience, as she would if she were speaking to them live. She knew that right now, in living rooms and kitchens across the nation, women would be glued to the screen, hoping for a magic bullet that would fix their lives. Phones would go unanswered, babies would go unfed and unchanged, doorbells would be ignored. Hope would bloom, and a brief vision of a different future would blast away fatigue and disillusionment.

Gayle knew that once the interview ended, most would just sink back into their own lives, but right now they were with her. They wanted to be inspired.

“Hearing people’s personal experiences can be motivational and uplifting for everyone. My approach to life is relevant whether you run a household or a corporation.”

“I ended a relationship.” Rochelle gave a nervous laugh, as if surprised that she’d actually admitted that on prime-time TV. “After I read the chapter ‘Obstacles to Ambition,’ I wrote down everything that might stop me achieving my goals, and the guy I was seeing was top of the list. And that chapter on auditing friendships…? Decluttering your contacts…? Brilliant! Asking yourself, How does this relationship bring me closer to my goals? And I wanted to ask you, GM, is this something you’ve done yourself?”

“Of course. My books are basically a blueprint of the way I’ve lived my life—but it can apply to anyone’s life. The main takeaway from Choice Not Chance is to challenge yourself. Brave New You focuses on confronting our innate fear of change.”

There. She’d slotted in a mention of the book, and because it was live it wouldn’t be cut. Her publisher would be pleased.

“I want all women—from the barista who serves me my coffee every morning to the woman who manages my investments—to feel in control of their destiny.” She gave the camera an intense look. “You have more power than you know.”

Rochelle leaned forward. “You’re famous for saying that no one can have it all. Have you made sacrifices for your career?”

“I’ve made choices, not sacrifices. Choices. Know what you want. Go for it. No apologies.”

“And you’ve never had any regrets?”

Regrets?

Gayle’s world wobbled a little. How well had this woman done her research?

She sat up a little straighter and looked at the camera. “No regrets.”

And just like that, the interview was over.

Rochelle unclipped her microphone. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Gayle stood up. “How did you get your start in TV?”

“I applied for a ton of things after college but had no luck with anything.” Rochelle was relaxed and chatty now the interview was over. “Then I was offered an internship at the studio. I shadowed a reporter, and they let me present a little because they thought I looked good on camera. So I suppose you could say I fell into it.”

Gayle winced. You fell into snowdrifts—not jobs.

“Today is a crossroads for you. Doors will open. I hope you walk through them.”

“Thanks, GM. I’m never going to forget what you’ve done for me.” Rochelle glanced at the crew and then back at Gayle. “We need photos so we can promote the interview on our site and social media.”

“Of course.” Gayle walked to her bookshelves and posed in what she knew was the most flattering position, careful that both her books were in the shot, face out.

Did they know that today was her birthday? No, why would they? Her digital team had scrubbed all mention of her birth date from the internet, so her age was shrouded in mystery. Birthdays slid past like the seasons—unmarked and frankly unwanted. She preferred to keep the focus on her achievements.

The photographer glanced around him. “Could we have a photograph with the award?”

The award?

Gayle glanced upward. The award had been placed on the top shelf of the bookcase that lined the only solid wall of her office. Had it been attractive she might have displayed it somewhere more prominent, but it was an ugly monstrosity, the brainchild of someone apparently devoid of both inspiration and artistic skill. The golden star itself was inoffensive, but it had been attached to a particularly ugly base. The first thing she’d thought on being presented with it the night before was that it reminded her of a gravestone.

Her opinion of it hadn’t mellowed overnight.

She looked at the award again, loathing it as much as she had when she’d received it—although of course at the time she’d smiled and looked delighted. What message would it send for her to be photographed with something so lacking in aesthetic charm? That she was ready for the grave and had the headstone to prove it?

She glanced outside to where Cole, her assistant, was supposed to be sitting during the interviews in case he was needed. Where was he? He should have anticipated this and had the statue ready.

She could either wait for his return—which would mean the TV crew lingering in her office—or she could get the damn thing herself.

Irritated, she slid off her shoes and pulled her office chair over to the bookcase.

The photographer cleared his throat. “I should get that for you, Ms. Mitchell. I’m taller than you, and—”

“Chairs were invented so that women could stand on them when necessary.”

Still, she was about to curse Cole for putting it on the highest shelf when she remembered she was, in fact, the one who had instructed him to do that.

Stepping onto the chair, she reached out.

Why had he put it so far back? Presumably Cole found it as loathsome as she did.

She rose on tiptoe and felt the chair wobble slightly.

She closed her right hand around the base of the award, remembering too late that it had required two hands to hold it steady when she’d been handed it the night before. As she swung it down from the shelf, the chair wobbled again, sending her body off-balance.

By the time she realized she was going to fall, it was too late to recover.

She groped for the bookcase with her free hand, but instead of providing solid support it tilted toward her. She had time to make a mental note to fire the clueless individual who had forgotten to secure the bookshelves to the wall, and then she was falling, falling, falling… One of the points of the heavy golden star smashed into her head and she crashed onto the hard office floor.

She was conscious for long enough to wish the decorator had given her deep-pile carpet. And then everything went black.

She missed the sound of Rochelle screaming and the sight of the camera rolling.

For a brief period of time she was blissfully oblivious to the chaos erupting around her.

Her return to consciousness was slow and confusing. She heard a low humming sound, a whirring in her head. Was she dead? Surely not. She could hear things.

She could hear people panicking around her, even though panic was an emotion specifically banned from her office.

“Oh my God, is she dead? Is she dead?

“Not dead. She’s definitely breathing.”

Gayle was relieved to have that confirmed by an outside source.

“But she’s unconscious. I called 911. They’re on their way.”

“Is that an actual hole in her head? I feel a little faint.”

“Pull yourself together.” A rough, male voice. “Did you get the shot, Greg?”

“Yeah, the whole thing is on camera. It’ll be a happy day for the headline writers. My money is on STARSTRUCK!”

“Could you be just a little sensitive here?” Rochelle’s voice, sounding traumatized. “She’s badly injured and you’re writing headlines!”

Didn’t they know she could hear them? Why were people so clueless? She had no idea how long she’d been knocked out. A minute? An hour? A day? No, if it had been a day she’d be lying in a hospital bed now, surrounded by a chorus of beeping machines.

Her chest hurt. Why did her chest hurt?

She remembered the bookshelves falling with her.

Someone must have caught them, or lifted them off her. As for the fate of the award—she had no idea. If the pain was anything to go by, there was a possibility it was still embedded in her head.

There was a crashing sound and the doors to her office burst open.

Gayle tried to open her eyes and give someone her scariest stare, but her eyelids felt too heavy.

She heard more voices, this time firm and confident—presumably the EMTs.

“What’s her name?”

Why was he asking her name? Didn’t he recognize her? Everyone knew who she was. She was a legend. She’d just won an award for being inspirational, and if they couldn’t see the actual award then surely they could see the award-sized dent in her skull.

She was going to write to the organizers and suggest a brooch for the next winner.

“Gayle, can you hear me? I’m Dan.”

Why was he calling her Gayle when they’d never met? She was either Ms. Mitchell or GM. Young people today had no respect. This was why she insisted on formality in the office.

This “Dan” barked out some instructions to his partner and proceeded to assess her injuries.

Gayle felt herself being poked and prodded.

“Has someone contacted her family? Loved ones?”

“Her…what?” That was Cole, sounding stressed and confused.

“Loved ones. Nearest and dearest.” The EMT was pressing something to her head.

“I don’t think—” Cole cleared his throat. “She doesn’t have loved ones.”

“She must have someone.” Dan eased Gayle’s eyes open and used a flashlight.

“That’s probably the first time anyone has looked into her eyes in a long time.”

Funny, Gayle thought. Until that moment she hadn’t even realized Cole had a sense of humor. It was a shame it was at her expense.

“Partner?” Dan again, doing something that apparently was meant to support her neck.

“No. Just work. She loves her work.”

“Are you telling me she has no one in her life?”

“Well, there’s Puccini…”

“Great. So give this Puccini guy a call and tell him what’s happened. He can meet us at the hospital.”

Gayle wanted to roll her eyes, but her head hurt too badly. She hoped this EMT knew more about head injuries than he did about culture.

“Puccini was a composer. Opera. GM loves opera. People? Not so much. She isn’t a family type of person. GM is married to her work.”

Dan clipped something to Gayle’s finger. “Oh man, that’s sad.”

Sad? Sad?

She ran one of the most successful boutique consulting firms in Manhattan. She was in demand as a speaker. She’d written a bestseller—soon to be two bestsellers if preorders were anything to go by. What was sad about that? Her life was the subject of envy, not pity.

“Makes her a bitch to work for, actually,” Cole muttered. “I couldn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral because she had a ten o’clock and I needed to be here.”

Cole thought she was a bitch?

No—no! She wasn’t a bitch. She was an inspiration! That journalist had said so. Yes, she worked hard, but there was a perfectly good reason for that. And if she hadn’t worked hard and turned the company into the success it was now, her team wouldn’t have their nice comfortable secure jobs. Why couldn’t they see that? Maybe she should use that award to knock some sense into her staff on a daily basis.

It was time she showed them she was awake—before she discovered more about herself she didn’t want to know.

“I don’t get it,” the EMT said, slapping the back of Gayle’s hand to find a vein. “I guess if you don’t have family, then you work. It’s that simple.”

He slid a needle into Gayle’s vein, and if she’d been capable of speech or movement, she would have punched him—both for the pain and his words.

It wasn’t that simple at all. They were implying she worked because she was lonely, but that wasn’t the case. Her work wasn’t her backup plan—it was her choice.

She’d chosen every single thing about her life. She’d designed her life. Written a book about it, dammit. Her life was perfect for her. Custom-made. A haute couture life. Everything she’d ever wanted.

“I guess her life must be pretty empty.”

Empty? Had they looked around at all? Seen the view from her corner office? True, she didn’t often look at it herself, because she was too busy to turn around, but she’d been told it was magnificent. Hadn’t they seen the photographs of her with industry leaders?

She led a full life.

“Yeah, poor thing…”

She wasn’t a poor thing. She was a powerhouse.

All they saw was the businesswoman. They knew nothing else about her. They didn’t know how hard she’d had to work to arrive at this place in her life. They didn’t know why she was this way. They didn’t know she had a past. A history. They didn’t know all the things that had happened to her.

They didn’t know her at all. They thought she had an empty life. They thought she was a lonely, sad figure. They were wrong.

They were—

Were they wrong?

She felt a sudden wash of cold air and saw a blinding light.

That question Rochelle had asked her, echoed in her head: And youve never had any regrets?

The faint wobble inside her became something bigger. It spread from the inside outward until her whole body was shaking.

She didn’t have regrets. She did not have regrets.

Regret was a wasted emotion—first cousin to guilt. Gayle had no room for either in her life.

But the shaking wouldn’t stop.

“We’ll get her to the ER.”

As well as the shaking, now there was a terrifying pressure in her chest. Had they forgotten to lift the bookcase from her mangled body? No. No, it wasn’t that. The pressure was coming from the inside, not the outside. Heart? No. It wasn’t physical. It was emotional.

“Her pulse rate is increasing.”

Of course it was increasing! Emotion did that to you. It messed you up. It was the reason she tried never to let it into her life. She had no idea who had allowed it in now—because it certainly hadn’t been her. It must have crept in through the hole in her head.

“She might be bleeding from somewhere. Let’s move. If there’s no one at home to care for her, they’ll probably admit her.

She was going to be admitted to hospital because all she had in her life was work and Puccini. Neither of those was going to bring her a glass of water or check she was alive in the night.

She lay there, trapped inside her bruised, broken body, forcing herself to do what she urged others to do. Acknowledge the truth of her life.

She ran a successful company. She had an apartment full of art and antiques on the Upper East Side and enough money that she never had to worry about it. But she had no one who would rush to her side when she was in trouble.

Cole was here because he was paid to be here, so that didn’t count.

She wasn’t loved. There was no one who cared about her. Not one person who would hear about the accident and think, Oh no! Poor Gayle! No one would be calling a florist and ordering flowers. No one would be delivering a casserole to her door or asking if there was anything she needed.

She was alone in this life she’d designed for herself.

Completely, totally and utterly alone.

She realized why most people were reluctant to examine the truth of their lives. It was an uncomfortable experience.

What had she done?

She’d chosen her life, designed her life, and now she didn’t like the way it was looking.

In that moment Gayle had an epiphany—and not a good one.

What if she’d chosen the wrong design? What if all the choices she’d made had been wrong? What if all these techniques she’d recommended to people through her books were wrong too?

She needed to stop publication.

She needed to tell her publisher she wanted to rethink the book. How could she promote Brave New You when she was lying on the floor shivering like a wounded animal?

She opened her mouth and tried to croak out some words.

“She’s moving. She’s conscious! Gayle—Gayle, can you hear me?”

Yes, she could hear him. She was unloved—not deaf.

She forced her eyes open and saw a uniformed EMT and behind him Cole, looking worried. There was the cameraman, and also Rochelle, scribbling frantically. Making the most of an opportunity, Gayle thought. Taking the advice she’d been given and redesigning her life.

And that was when she had her second epiphany. Who said you could only design your life once? People remodeled houses all the time, didn’t they? Just because you’d lived with white walls for decades didn’t mean you couldn’t suddenly paint them green.

If she didn’t like the way her life looked, then it was up to her to fix it.

And, although she didn’t regret her actions, exactly, she did regret the outcome of those actions.

Maybe she could have done more.

Maybe it wasn’t too late to rebuild what had been knocked down.

But she had to be the one to make the first move.

“My daughter.” Her lips formed the words. “Call…my daughter.”

She saw Cole’s face pale. “She’s conscious, but she has a serious head injury. She’s confused. She has amnesia.”

The EMT frowned. “Why would you say that?”

“Because GM doesn’t have a daughter.”

Gayle thought about the baby they’d put into her arms. The way it had felt to be entirely responsible for the well-being of a tiny, helpless infant, knowing what lay ahead. How hard life could be. If it hadn’t been for the child, she might have given up, but motherhood had driven her on. How could she give up when she had her daughter to protect? She’d wanted to swaddle her in steel and surround her with an electric fence to keep the bad at bay.

“Gayle, do you know what day it is?”

Yes, she knew what day it was. It was the day she’d started questioning everything she’d believed was right. The day she’d realized that regret could hurt more than a bruised head and crushed ribs. How could she have got everything so wrong?

She tried again. “Call my eldest daughter.”

What if she died before she had a chance to fix things?

“Eldest…?” Cole looked nervous. “She doesn’t have one daughter, let alone more. Ms. Mitchell—Gayle—how many fingers am I holding up? Can you tell me?”

Right at that moment she wanted to hold up her own finger. Her middle one.

“Call my daughter.”

“She isn’t confused. Gayle Mitchell has two daughters,” Rochelle said. “I did a deep dive into her background before the interview. My research suggests they’re estranged.”

Estranged? No, that wasn’t right. True, they hadn’t seen each other for a while. Maybe a few years. All right, perhaps it was nearly five years… Gayle couldn’t remember. But she did remember their last encounter. When she thought about it—which she tried not to—she felt affronted and hurt.

None of it had been her fault. She’d been doing her best for them—which was all she’d ever done. She’d worked hard at being the best mother possible. She’d made sure she’d equipped her children to deal with the real world and experienced a mother’s frustration when her girls had made bad choices. She’d discovered the anguish of having all of the anxiety but none of the control. She’d done her best. It wasn’t her fault that they preferred the fairy tale to the reality. It wasn’t her fault that they were unable to appreciate how well she’d prepared them for adulthood.

Yes, relations between them were tense, but they weren’t estranged. That was a truly horrible word. A word with razor-sharp edges.

Cole appeared to be suffering from shock.

“She has kids? But that means that she—I mean she must have had—”

The fact that he was struggling to picture her having sex wasn’t flattering. He clearly thought his boss was a robot.

“All right. If you’re sure, then we should call the daughters.” His voice was strangled. “Is there a phone number, Ms. Mitchell?”

Would Samantha have changed her number?

She hadn’t called, so Gayle had no way of knowing. She’d been waiting for both of them to call her and apologize. Days had melted into weeks and then months. Shame flooded through her. What did it say about a mother when her own children didn’t want to make contact?

If she admitted the truth, would her judgmental staff and the medical team decide she wasn’t worth saving?

Instead of answering, she moaned.

That caused more consternation among the people gathered around her.

“She’s struggling to speak—can we find out her daughter’s number?”

“I’m searching…” Rachel tapped away on her phone. “One of her daughters is called Samantha.”

Gayle gasped as the EMT and his assistant transferred her to a gurney.

Cole was searching, too. “There’s a Samantha Mitchell in New Jersey. Comedian. No way.”

Was he implying that she didn’t have a sense of humor? That laughter didn’t figure in her DNA?

“There’s a Samantha Mitchell in Chicago…a Samantha Mitchell, dog walker, in Ohio. Samantha Mitchell CEO of a bespoke travel company in Boston…” He looked up as Gayle made a sound. “That’s her? She runs a travel company?”

Boston? Samantha had moved cities? It wasn’t enough not to speak to her mother—she clearly didn’t want to risk running into her on the street.

Gayle tried to ignore the pain. She was willing to be the bigger person. Kids disappointed you. It was a fact of life. She would forgive and move on. She wanted to do that. She wanted them in her life. Their relationship never should have reached this point.

And CEO!

Through the ashes of her misery, Gayle discovered a glowing ember of pride. You go, girl.

Whether Samantha admitted it or not, there was plenty of her mother in her.

As they wheeled her through the office to the elevator, she caught a glimpse of the shocked faces of her staff, who had never once seen GM vulnerable in all the time they’d worked at Mitchell and Associates.

But she felt vulnerable now. Not because of the head injury, and not even because of the photos that the wretched photographer had taken of her unfortunate accident, nor the prospect of headlines as painful as the injury itself.

No, she felt vulnerable because someone was about to contact Samantha.

And there was every possibility that her daughter wouldn’t even take the call.

CHAPTER TWO

Samantha

“I suggest a European tour, focusing on the Christmas markets. Not only will you be steeped in holiday spirit, which is what you want, but you can buy all your gifts at the same time. It will be perfect.”

Shoes off, hair caught in a messy bun, Samantha scrolled through the itinerary her team had prepared.

“Start in Prague. You will never forget Wenceslas Square. At Christmas it’s filled with pretty wooden huts selling handcrafted goods and delicious treats—you have to try the warm gingerbread—and they always have an incredible tree. You’ll sip mulled wine while you watch the ice-skaters, and there will probably be choirs singing in the background. It’s gloriously festive!”

Skillfully she painted a picture. She talked about the smell of baked apples in the famous markets of Cologne, the scent of Christmas spices in Vienna and the beautiful medieval streets of Tallinn, Estonia.

“That horse-and-cart ride you dreamed about? We can definitely make that happen. You’ll never want to come home. I’m emailing a plan across to you now. Take a look and let me know what you think. You might prefer to reduce the number of markets and spend a little longer in each place. We can tailor it in any way that works for you.”

She glanced up as her assistant opened her office door, her baby on her hip.

Samantha gave a brief shake of her head. Her staff knew better than to interrupt when she was on a call—especially when that call was to a client as important as Annabelle Wexford. Whoever it was could wait.

She waggled her fingers at the baby and carried on talking.

“It will be fabulous, Annabelle. In Prague, we’ve reserved you a suite with a view of the Charles Bridge. After you’ve enjoyed the markets, you’ll be able to relax and drink in the same view…”

She gave her the full benefit of her research and experience—which was extensive. No one knew more about making the best of the holiday season than she did. She’d been designing bespoke winter vacations for people since she’d graduated. First for a big travel company who offered tailor-made holidays to anywhere and everywhere, and then for herself.

When she’d announced that she was setting up on her own, focusing exclusively on festive vacations, her competitors had predicted she’d last six months. She’d proved them wrong. There were people willing to pay a great deal of money to enjoy a bespoke magical holiday experience if it delivered what they wanted. And Samantha delivered every time.

Her company, RFH—Really Festive Holidays—was booming.

There was a card on her desk from a delighted client addressed to her as The Queen of Christmas. Another calling her Mrs.Santa.

Was there anything better than making someone’s dreams of a magical festive season come true?

“We’ve sent over a couple of hotel options in Vienna—take a look and let us know your preference.”

It was five minutes before she was able to end the call and follow up with her assistant.

She hit a button on the phone on her desk. “Charlotte? I’m done.”

Charlotte appeared in the doorway, a tablet in her hand. A large damp patch spread across her midnight blue shirt, which clung to her breast.

“Sorry, I forgot you were on the phone to Annabelle—and sorry about this.” She tugged at her shirt. “Amy started yelling, and my boobs took it as a hint to go into milk mode. Nature is an amazing but inconvenient thing. Fortunately there are no clients in the office at the moment. My mom is back tomorrow, so she won’t be in the office again.”

“Where is she?”

“My mom? Visiting my Gran in—”

“The baby.” Samantha was patient. “Amy.”

“Oh. She fell asleep after I fed her, so I popped her under my desk in her seat and I’m going to make the most of it and get everything done. Truly sorry about this.”

“It’s perfectly fine. This is an important time for both of you. Parent-child bonding is crucial—particularly in these early months. Family is everything. You need to spend as much time together as possible. Use my office to feed any time you need to.”

“You’re the best boss on the planet, and I might cry.” Charlotte sniffed. “Yes, I’m going to cry. It’s your fault for being kind. I’m so emotional right now. Even the news makes me sob.”

“The news makes me sob, too, and I’m not hormonal.” Samantha pushed tissues across her desk. “Here. You’re doing great, Charlotte.”

“I’m not as sharp as I used to be. My brain feels soggy. I cut Mr. Davidson off instead of putting him through.”

“And you immediately called him back, and he was completely understanding—so don’t worry. He’s not likely to forget that you were the one who arranged to fly him home when he had a heart attack in India and that you visited him in hospital.”

“He’s a dear man.” Charlotte took a handful of tissues, stuffed a few into her bra and blew her nose with the others. “I’m worried I’ll lose you a client.”

“That’s not going to happen.” Samantha stood up and walked round her desk. “Are you doing okay? Are you just tired, or is it something more? Because if you need time off—”

“No. Honestly, I’m fine. It’s an adjustment, that’s all. I love my job, and I want to be here, but I want to be with Amy, too. I feel like a terrible employee and a terrible mother.”

“You’re wonderful at both—just very hard on yourself. You’ll get back into it. Don’t worry.”

“That’s what my mom says…but I’m worried you’ll want me to leave.”

“Charlotte!” Samantha was horrified. “You were the first person I employed. We’ve been in this together from the beginning.”

Charlotte gave a watery smile. “Christmas every day, right?”

“Exactly! You are brilliant at your job. I am never letting you leave! For a start, you know every single thing about every single client, which is a big part of the reason we’re doing so well. And there is no crisis you can’t handle. You masterminded the search for Mrs, Davidson’s precious cat while she was in the Arctic, for goodness’ sake.”

Charlotte’s smile turned to a laugh. “That cat was vicious. I’m sure the neighbors let it out on purpose.”

“Maybe, but she loved that animal and you fixed it. It’s what you do. You’re just having a difficult time, that’s all. But you’ll get through it. Well get through it. You have a job as long as you want one, and I hope that’s a very long time.”

“Thank you.” Charlotte blew her nose hard and picked up one of the photos on Samantha’s desk. “New photo? I haven’t seen this one.”

“Ella sent it last week. Apparently Tab is going through a princess phase.”

“And, knowing you, you’ve already sent her four sparkling princess costumes.”

“Two…” Had she gone over-the-top? “I just happened to see a couple on my way home. I wasn’t sure which one she’d prefer.”

“The doting aunt.” Charlotte put the photo back. “Your niece is gorgeous. I can’t imagine Amy being four and a half. Tab must be so excited about the holidays.”

“She is. I’m going there this weekend, and we’re going to make decorations for the tree.”

“I can’t wait until Amy is old enough to do that. This will be her first Christmas, and we’ve already bought way too much, considering she isn’t going to remember any of it.”

“Did you have messages for me?” Sam prompted gently, and Charlotte produced her tablet from under her arm.

“Yes.” She tapped the tablet. “Eight messages. The Wilsons called to give the go-ahead for Lapland. They want the whole package—reindeer, elves, Santa—but they’re not sure about the husky sled ride.”

“They’d love it,” Samantha murmured. “Providing they dress for the weather they’ll have a blast. I’ll give them a call and talk it through. Next?”

She sat down at her desk, dealing with each message in turn, scribbling a few notes to herself. Some she asked Charlotte to deal with; some she chose to deal with personally.

“The Mortons are an adventurous family—they’d love Iceland. We’ll book them on a tour to see the Northern Lights, and they can do that snowmobile safari on a glacier that was such a hit with that family from Ohio.”

“The Dawsons.”

“Right. Also the ice caves. Anything else?”

“Brodie McKintyre called.”

Samantha didn’t recognize the name. “New client?”

“He owns that estate in the Scottish Highlands.”

“Kinleven?”

Charlotte checked her notes. “That’s the one. Amazing lodge, complete with fairy-tale turrets. You read about it in that magazine and then asked me to contact him after we had that inquiry from the family in Seattle. We talked about it last month and I called him.”

“Of course. House parties in a remote Scottish glen… Don’t they have an actual reindeer herd?” Samantha leaned back in her chair. “I know it’s not something we’ve offered before, but I feel in my gut it would work. Everyone is wild about Scotland—particularly for the holidays—and the place is by a loch, on the edge of a forest. Guests could cut their own Christmas tree. A fresh one that actually smells of the forest, and not of chemicals. The possibilities are endless. Whiskey in front of a roaring log fire… Maybe we could add a couple of nights in Edinburgh for Hogmanay.” She saw Charlotte’s expression. “New Year’s Eve.”

“Ooh.” Charlotte smiled. “I want to book that vacation myself. It sounds dreamy.”

“And that’s what we do. We give people their dream winter vacation. The Christmas they’ll never forget.” Samantha tapped her pen on the desk. “What did he say? Did you tell him that the demand for properties in the Scottish Highlands is going through the roof?”

“Yes. Also that you speak to all your clients personally, and that you’re wicked good at what you do, so he can expect to be busy.”

“And…?”

“He said that he’s interested in principle, but he’d want to discuss it further. Because the lodge is a family home, and before he accepts guests, he’ll need to know he’s entrusted the task of renting it out to the right person.”

“Get him on the phone and I’ll convince him I’m the right person.”

“He wants to meet you.”

“Why?” Samantha tried not to think of her packed schedule. “Never mind. Whatever it takes. When is he in Boston?”

“He’s not. He wants you to fly to Scotland.”

Samantha shot up in her chair. “Scotland? You mean Scotland, Connecticut?”

“No.” Charlotte frowned. “Is there a Scotland in Connecticut?”

“Yes. It’s a town. There are others.”

“I mean the actual Scotland. The country. Land of hill and heather. And those cute cows with horns.”

“Highland cattle. Are you serious? He wants me to fly to Scotland?”

Charlotte held up her hands in surrender. “I’m just the messenger. But is it so hard to understand? He’s emotionally attached to the place. It’s his home. He was born there. Imagine being born in a Scottish glen instead of a sterile white hospital room…”

“He told you all this?”

“Yes. We chatted for a while. He says it won’t suit everyone and that you’ll need to know what you’re selling.”

“He’s right, of course. And I usually do visit before we start recommending. But I’m snowed under.”

Samantha loosened another button on her shirt and paced to the window. The view always calmed her. From her office in Back Bay she could see Boston Harbor, the water glittering pale under the winter sun. It was barely December, but the first flurries of snow had fallen the week before—a reminder that winter had arrived.

Samantha was one of those few people who loved snow. No amount of cold weather could damage her love affair with this city. There were no memories here. No ghosts haunted the brick sidewalks and historic architecture. Moving from Manhattan was the best thing she’d ever done. Boston was her city. She loved everything about it—from the art galleries and upmarket boutiques of Newbury Street to Beacon Street with its vintage gas lamps. Even at this time of year, with a bitter wind blowing off the Charles River, she loved it.

“Boss?”

“Yes.” She turned to Charlotte. “Scotland. Fine. We’ll take the risk and have someone visit because I think the place sounds perfect. Send Rick. He’s been known to wear a kilt to fancy dress parties.”

“The laird insisted it was you.”

“The laird?”

“Just my little joke. I’ve been reading too many of those historical romances we love. I dream of being swept onto a horse by a man wearing a kilt.”

“With Amy attached to your breast? That does not sound comfortable.” There were days when she wished Charlotte, who wasn’t known for her discretion, hadn’t discovered her reading habit. “Please don’t tell Brodie McIntyre that we read historical romance.”

“Why? Read what you want, I always say.”

“I agree, but I prefer to keep my personal life separate from my professional life.” Also her inner self separate from her outer self. She’d been reading romance since she was a teenager. It had started off as a way of exploring emotions that were frowned upon by her mother, but then she’d discovered it was the perfect method of relaxation. She wouldn’t have shared her secret reading tastes with Charlotte, but she’d happened to notice a book in Samantha’s bag. The following day she’d bought a stack of books into the office, and they’d been sharing ever since. “I’m running a business, and it would be hard to keep my credibility with clients and these Scottish folk if they knew we spent our free time fantasizing about being swept into the heather by a sexy guy in a kilt.”

“Exactly. It’s a fantasy. It’s not as if we want to do it in real life. I bet heather is prickly. And possibly full of insects. Also, I checked his photo on the internet and the laird is in his late sixties—although still very handsome in a craggy, weather-beaten sort of way.”

Samantha decided it was time to change the subject. “Did he say exactly what he wants me to do on this visit?”

“No. I didn’t spend that long on the phone with him because I was worried Amy was going to bawl.” Charlotte adjusted her bra strap. “He said you should spend a few nights there this month, that’s all. And, honestly, he did have an incredibly sexy voice.”

“You think a selling point would be the owner’s voice? It’s twenty-four days until Christmas. There’s no way I can fit it in a visit.”

“Why don’t you talk to him and try and arrange something? He even suggested Christmas itself, but I said you always spend the holiday with your sister. So then he said maybe she would like to come too, and you could test the whole family holiday thing. Which would be cool, don’t you think?”

“I do not think.”

“Are you sure? What better way to evaluate the commercial appeal of spending Christmas in Scotland than by spending Christmas in Scotland?”

“It would be work—and I am not working at Christmas unless there’s a client emergency. I am going to travel to my sister’s and then stay in my pajamas for the entire time. I’ll speak to him and arrange another time.”

“Hmm… You could be missing out. Laid by the Laird would be a good title for a book, don’t you think?”

“I do not. And please hold back from suggesting book titles if you ever meet him.”

“Got it.” Charlotte glanced out of the window. “It’s snowing again.”

Samantha wasn’t listening. Instead she was thinking about the hunting lodge in the Highlands. Maybe a few days in Scotland wouldn’t be so bad. The Kinleven Estate looked perfect, and she could think of at least a dozen clients who would love it—and love her for finding it.

“Get him on the phone. I’ll try and fix a date between now and Christmas. I guess I can fly in one day and out the next. Is that it?”

“Kyle rang. Four times. He sounded irritated. Said he waited for two hours in the restaurant last night.”

“Oh…”

She’d been tied up with one of her favorite clients—an elderly widow who lived in Arizona and had decided to bravely embrace her new single life. So far Samantha had arranged three trips for her, and they’d spent an hour the previous evening discussing a fourth. She’d forgotten her dinner arrangement with Kyle. What did it say about her that she’d forgotten? What did it say about them?

“That was rude of me. I’ll call and apologize.”

Charlotte shifted. “He said to tell you not to bother to call unless you’re ready to take your relationship to the next level.”

Oh for goodness sake!

The next level? It’s a relationship—not an elevator.” And as far as she was concerned they hadn’t made it out of the basement.

“That was kind of his point. He said you need to decide where you want to go with this. I got the impression he wanted to go right to the top floor.” Charlotte gave an apologetic smile. “I think he’s in love with you.”

“He—What? That’s not true. He isn’t any more in love with me than I am with him.”

What she had with Kyle was a relationship of mutual convenience. They were theater partners. Opera partners. Occasional bedroom partners. Only more often than not Kyle fell asleep the moment he was horizontal. Like so many people in this area, he ran a tech start-up and was busier than she was. And the most disturbing part of that…? She didn’t even care.

She should care, shouldn’t she?

She should care that they would both rather work than spend time together.

She should care that there was no passion.

When they were together, her mind wandered, as if searching for some more stimulating alternative to the evening she’d chosen. She looked forward to him leaving so she could get back to her book.

She knew that real life wasn’t like the romantic fiction she read, but surely it should come a little closer?

“Get him on the phone,” she said. “I’ll talk to him.”

What was she going to say? She had no idea, but she’d find a way to smooth it over and keep things the way they were.

“Before you speak to him, you should know a huge bouquet of flowers arrived an hour ago from the Talbots, who are now back from their honeymoon in Vienna and wanted you to know it was everything they dreamed it would be.”

“Which is exactly how they should feel about a honeymoon.” Samantha was pleased to have another satisfied customer.

“That’s it! We’re done. I’ll make those calls and—” She broke off as Amanda, one of the junior account managers, came flying into the room.

“Samantha! Sorry, but it’s urgent.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s your mother.”

Samantha almost said, I dont have a mother, but then she remembered that wasn’t strictly true. Biologically speaking, she had a mother. Not a cuddly, rosy-cheeked loving mother, as portrayed by the movies, but still a mother in the most literal sense of the word.

Instinctively she kept her expression blank. She had her mother to thank for that skill—if the ability to hide the way she was feeling could be considered a skill. She had no problem with other people’s emotions—just her own.

She felt Charlotte touch her arm. “Samantha? Are you okay?”

No, she wasn’t okay. Mention of her mother was enough to ensure that.

“She called?”

“Not personally.”

Of course not personally. When had her mother ever done anything personal? And Samantha hadn’t heard from her in five years. Not since that last frustrating and disastrous “family gathering.” She could still feel her sister’s tears soaking through her shirt and remember the way her whole body had shuddered with sobs as Samantha had held her.

Why is she like this? Why does she say these things? What did we do wrong?

Samantha felt suddenly tired. “Who called? And why?”

Her mother would never make contact without a good reason.

“Someone called Cole. He says he’s her assistant. I had no idea your mother was Gayle Mitchell. I mean, I probably should have guessed…Samantha Mitchell, right? But I just didn’t—I mean, wow.” The girl was looking at Samantha with awe and a new respect. “What a woman. She’s a total legend.”

Of all the words Samantha could have used to describe her mother, that wouldn’t have been on her list. But she was aware of how many people—women especially—admired her.

Gayle Mitchell had a way of inspiring and reaching people. The only people she seemed unable to connect with were her daughters.

Samantha felt a pressure in her chest. How could she feel hurt? After all these years, why didn’t she have that under control?

Choice Not Chance changed my life,” Amanda said. “It’s brilliant, isn’t it?”

Should she admit that she’d never read it? She’d used it as a drinks mat, a dartboard and a doorstop. But never once opened it. That was her choice, wasn’t it?

“Did her assistant say why she was calling?”

“Well, kind of… I don’t know an easy way to say this. It’s going to be a shock…” Amanda sent Charlotte a desperate look. “Your mother is in hospital.”

Samantha stared at her. “What?”

“Hospital. She’s in hospital.”

“That’s not possible. My mother hasn’t had a single sick day in her life.”

“Her assistant said something about an accident. He said you need to get to the hospital because she’s asking for you.”

Her mother was asking for her? Why? Gayle Mitchell was nothing if not practical. If she was injured, she’d be asking for a doctor—not her daughter. Especially as they hadn’t seen each other since that last disastrous occasion.

She glanced round as Sandra, the intern, ran into the room.

Samantha wondered if her relaxed open-door policy needed rethinking.

“Your mother is on TV!”

Samantha didn’t ask how she knew Gayle Mitchell was her mother. They’d obviously all been chatting.

Sandra had grabbed the remote control and switched on the large screen on the wall. And there was her mother, tumbling from a chair, her normal poise deserting her as she flailed. What was that thing in her hand? It looked like a lump of granite.

Samantha winced as her mother crash-landed. She’d forgotten her mother was mortal. Capable of bleeding.

Anxiety washed over her. She found her mother aggravating, frustrating and many other things—but she didn’t want her to actually die.

She shifted on the spot to try and ease the discomfort of guilt. She should have reached out. Tried to open a dialogue. Explained how hurt she and Ella were. But they’d both been waiting for their mother to apologize for being so unsupportive, and then time had passed, and…

What if she’d left it too late?

Numb, she stared at the screen, watching as staff scurried round, as EMTs arrived. Lying there, still and bleeding, her mother looked vulnerable. Samantha couldn’t think of a single time in her life when her mother had looked vulnerable. Gayle Mitchell didn’t do vulnerable.

“Oh my—that had to hurt,” Charlotte whispered. “Why would they film this stuff? It’s so intrusive. Can you sue someone? Wow, that’s a lot of blood. Is that normal?”

Samantha pointed the remote at the screen and turned it off.

Her heart was punching her ribs, her pulse galloping.

Had her sister seen it? Ella would be upset. Despite everything that had happened, she still yearned to be a warm, close-knit family. She’d talked about making contact with their mother, but in the end she’d been too afraid of rejection to take the plunge.

Samantha had forgotten the other people in the room until she felt Charlotte’s hand on her arm.

“You’re in shock—and that’s not surprising. Come and sit down.”

Samantha extracted herself. “I’m fine.”

Charlotte exchanged looks with Amanda. “We know you’re not fine, boss. You don’t have to pretend with us. We’re like a family here. And this is your mom we’re talking about. I mean, if it was my mother I’d be in pieces.”

If it had been Charlotte’s mother, Samantha would have been in pieces, too. Charlotte’s mother dropped by the office frequently with Amy, bringing with her homemade baked goods and a level of maternal warmth that Samantha had never before encountered.

But this wasn’t Charlotte’s mother. It was her mother.

“The phone call…” Her voice didn’t sound like her own. “Did he say how bad she is?”

If she was dead, they would have said so on TV, wouldn’t they?

Not dead. But seriously injured, if the film footage was accurate.

And Samantha was going to have to go to the hospital.

Her conscience wouldn’t let her do otherwise.

This was her mother, and Samantha wasn’t a monster.

She had to ignore the fact that her mother hadn’t been present for any of the emotional highs and lows of her life. And the fact that, if it had been Samantha in hospital, her mother probably wouldn’t have come. She didn’t want to model herself on her mother. When faced with a situation that required judgment, she often thought What would my mother do? and was then careful to do the opposite.

Which answered her own question.

She turned to Charlotte. “Call the assistant back and tell him I’m on my way. Clear my schedule. I’ll go to New York tonight.”

Charlotte nodded. “No worries. Totally understood. I mean, it’s your mother, right?”

“Right.”

Samantha ran her hand over the back of her neck.

Was she doing the right thing?

What was she going to say when she arrived at the hospital? Were they just going to ignore what had happened the last time they’d met?

Her mother probably didn’t even know she’d moved to Boston.

Charlotte was making notes. “I’ll book you a flight and a car to the airport, and I’ll call everyone on our list and explain that you’ve had a family emergency and—”

“No.” Samantha rubbed her fingers across her forehead. “Some of those calls can’t wait. The car needs to go via my apartment, so I can pack an overnight bag. Get Kyle on the phone, because I need to apologize, and also the guy from Scotland—because we have clients who would just love his place and I need to get that visit arranged. Tell the others I’ll call them back as soon as I can.”

“Are you sure? Kyle will understand if you—”

“Just get him on the phone, Charlotte. Thank you.”

She knew that if there was to be any chance of saving their relationship she needed to speak to him right now. But what exactly was she saving? And did she want to save it? Kyle was interesting, good-looking, solvent, and he had no unfortunate habits as far as she could see. He bought her flowers. Found good restaurants. She should want to save it.

Except her feelings weren’t engaged, and she never felt as if his were, either.

It was all so—restrained. A little cold. When they were out together she’d never felt an overwhelming desire to drag him somewhere private so that they could be alone. He’d never appeared overwhelmed by her, either. He was perfect for outer Samantha—the version of herself that she showed to the real world, but inner Samantha? The person she really was under the poise and polish? Wild Samantha. That woman wanted so much more.

Why did she find it so hard to be that woman? What exactly was holding her back?

Could she really blame her mother?

She sat up a little straighter.

She wasn’t a toddler. There came a point where you had to take responsibility.

If something had to change, then she was the one who had to change it.

She winced, aware that her thoughts could have come straight from her mother’s book. Choice not Chance. That damn book that slapped her in the face every time she walked into a bookstore.

For a moment she hesitated, loath to do anything that felt like following her mother’s advice.

And then she realized how ridiculous that was. This was her life and her decision. Her mother wouldn’t even know about it.

She wasn’t waiting until the New Year to make a resolution. She was making it right now—starting with Kyle. She wasn’t saving the relationship; she was breaking up with him. Not only had she forgotten their date, she hadn’t even realized she’d forgotten it. She wasn’t an expert on relationships, but even she knew that wasn’t good. What she had with Kyle wasn’t what she wanted.

No more bland, safe, unsatisfying relationships. The next man she met, she was going to be open and honest with him. She was going to take a risk and share her thoughts and feelings, instead of keeping them locked away. Maybe if she did that, her relationships would change and she’d feel passion. She wanted that. She wanted to be emotionally involved.

Satisfied that her mother would be suitably horrified by that revelation, Samantha felt better.

“Let’s make those calls, Charlotte.”

“Okay…well, for the record, I think you’re very brave, holding it together like this.” Charlotte checked her tablet. “Just to clarify—because my brain is a little fuzzy after Amy’s eventful night—I’ll call your mother’s assistant back and say you’ll go to the hospital later. I’ll tell the Mortons that you feel Iceland is the perfect choice for them, that it’s your personal recommendation and that you’ll call to discuss it once they’ve taken a look at the itinerary we suggest. I’ll get the laird on the phone so you can try and persuade him that you don’t need to visit, and I’ll also call your sister.”

“Not my sister. I’ll call my sister. You get Kyle for me. And stop calling the Scottish guy “the laird” or I’ll do it by accident.”

“Right. Got it.”

Flustered, Charlotte left the room with the others and Samantha returned to her desk.

She closed her laptop and slipped it into her bag. She’d be able to do some work on the flight, or maybe in the hospital. It was unlikely that her mother was going to want her hanging out in her room.

She reached under her desk, rescued her shoes and slid them on, not wanting to analyze why she needed to wear heels to break up with a guy over the phone.

The thought of seeing her mother made her feel mildly nauseated. So did the thought of speaking to Kyle. She felt the same flutter of nerves in her stomach that she’d felt before she’d done a parachute jump for charity.

She smoothed her hair, then reached across to the phone on her desk and stabbed a button. “Charlotte? If you’re not feeding Amy, could you bring me a drink, please?”

“Sure! Tea or coffee?”

“Vodka. Rocks.”

There was a brief silence. “Right. Coming up.”

Charlotte appeared a moment later, ice clinking in the glass she held. “Here. And I’m not judging you, so don’t worry about that. Your mom is in hospital, your relationship is ending…basically your personal life is a total mess, so you shouldn’t feel bad about needing a drink.”

“Thank you.”

“Was that blunt? Darn. I’m trying to be less blunt.”

Blunt works for me. And you’re right—my personal life is a mess.” But she was about to make a start at clearing it up.

Charlotte patted her hand. “Just to say it’s okay for you to talk about it if you want to. You’re always listening to everyone else, but you keep all your own personal stuff inside.”

She kept everything inside. What would happen if she didn’t? If inner Samantha and outer Samantha actually merged? How would that work? It would be like walking into an otherwise immaculate apartment and finding laundry on the floor.

Charlotte seemed reluctant to relinquish the glass. “Instead of vodka I could give you a great big hug. I always find a hug is the best thing when I’m scared about something.”

“Charlotte—”

“And I never gossip, so you don’t need to worry about that. You’re probably afraid someone will go straight to the press with a story about your mom, but I would never do that.”

“I know.”

“You never talk about your mother, and I understand why.”

“You do?”

Should she be pleased or alarmed? Could it be that someone had actually seen beneath the surface?

“Of course. It’s obvious. Gayle Mitchell is a legend, and if you mention her, everyone is going to want to talk about her, or get you to pull a favor and have a book signed or something. You’re afraid people will only be interested in you because of your mother—but you shouldn’t think that. You’re an inspiration in your own right. Look at what you’ve built here! Although…Choice not Chance.” She beamed. “I read it three times. And I have Brave New You on preorder.”

Samantha wished her mother had never written that damn book.

She made a mental note to store a bottle of vodka in her office. She could invent a new drinking game. One shot when someone said something flattering about her mother. Two shots when someone said those three dreaded words.

“Let’s get those calls done, Charlotte.”

“Right.” Charlotte finally put the drink down. “And I think you’re amazing, being able to focus on work at a time like this.”

“Thank you.”

She waited until Charlotte had left the room and then picked up the glass.

What was she doing? Was she really so bad at dealing with emotional issues that she needed a drink to get her through?

Maybe she should have said yes to the hug…

She put the vodka down on her desk. It wasn’t the solution. She did not need it. She’d call Kyle, and then she’d treat herself to a double-shot espresso from the Italian coffee shop down the road before she headed to the airport.

She was nervous, and she had her mother to blame for that.

Gayle Mitchell had drummed into both her children that any relationship was the death of ambition and goals—an anchor dragging you to the bottom of the rough seas of life. Every time Samantha ended a relationship, it made her doubly uncomfortable, because part of her felt as if she was pleasing her mother. Was that why she’d stayed with Kyle for so long? Because breaking up with him felt like something her mother would approve of?

Her phone lit up and she took a deep breath. The best way to handle this was to dive right in.

“Hi, there. Firstly, I am so sorry about last night. I was buried in work and to be honest I didn’t even look up from my desk until midnight—”

She wasn’t going to say she hadn’t even realized she’d missed their date until Charlotte had told her.

“Anyway, I apologize. But it did start me thinking.”

She heard an indrawn breath and ploughed on.

“Before you speak, let me finish. Please. I have to be honest. The truth is, this isn’t working for me. I mean, you’re great company, and we always have interesting conversation and a good time, but we’re not exactly setting the world on fire, are we? We have these sedate dinners, or evenings at the theater, where we behave like a middle-aged couple and you occasionally hold my hand on the way home. It’s all very civilized and restrained, and that’s probably my fault because we both know I’m not great at showing emotion. But I want to. You have no idea how much I want to be great at that. I want to feel stuff. But when you and I are together, I just don’t feel it—and that’s my fault not yours. I’ve developed this outer self, and sometimes I find it hard to connect to my inner self—” Wild Samantha.

She was probably saying far too much, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.

“Maybe we don’t have the right chemistry, or maybe I’m never going to feel anything because I can’t let go of this controlled person I’ve become.” Thank you for that, Mother.

 “But I owe it to myself to at least hold out for more. I’m not expecting a storm of passion, but a light breeze would be nice. And you deserve that, too. We both deserve better than this bland, neutral, polite relationship. I think we should acknowledge that something is missing.”

She stared through the window at the swirling snowflakes, wondering how it was possible to feel lonely in a city that was home to hundreds of thousands of people. But among all those people how did you find that one person who was going to change your world? Honesty. That had to be a good start.

“You don’t really know me, Kyle, and that’s my fault not yours. I—I’m not the person you think I am. I mean I am, but I’m also so much more. The real me wants to have a love affair so all-consuming that I forget to go to work—instead of forgetting the man and the date because I’m at work. I want to sneak off in my lunch break and buy sexy lingerie, instead of eating at my desk and taking calls. I want to drink champagne naked in bed, not seated in a theater bar surrounded by strangers. I want to have wild, desperate sex without caring when or where, and I definitely don’t want to think about work at the same time. I—I want to see stars when I’m kissed.”

Had she just said that aloud? Had she really just said that?

It was all very well resolving to be more open and honest, but it had left her feeling exposed and uncomfortable. She might as well have paraded down Newbury Street naked. Thank goodness she was ending it and wouldn’t have to face him again. This was what happened when she let wild Samantha take control. That version of her needed to stay locked away inside where she could cause minimum damage.

Dying of embarrassment, she forced out a few more words. “So what I’m saying is it’s over. And I don’t think this will be too much of a shock to you. I know there are many things about me that annoy you—not least the fact that my sister is so important to me and we speak every day. But that is never going to change, and neither is the whole passion thing, so I think we should both just accept the way things are and agree, amicably, that it’s been fun but it’s time to end it.”

There. She’d done it. She’d said it. In fact she’d said far too much.

Samantha closed her eyes and breathed slowly to try and slow her racing heart. She hadn’t realized her feelings were quite so close to the surface.

Kyle still hadn’t responded, which she took to be a sign that he was shocked by her frankness. She was shocked, too. Drinking champagne in bed, naked? Where had that come from?

She gave him a few moments to respond and then gave up waiting. “This is… I’m starting to feel a little awkward…” Understatement of the century. “Say something. Anything.”

There was only silence on the end of the phone.

Samantha felt a rush of exasperation, but also a growing sense of conviction that she’d done the right thing by breaking up with him. She’d spilled every one of her emotions all over him. She’d been honest and open, the way all those relationship books said you should be, and what had she got in return? Not warmth and understanding, but silence.

“Kyle? What do you think?”

“What do I think?”

The voice on the end of the phone was deep, rough and entirely unfamiliar.

“I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else. We’ve never had dinner, boring or otherwise, and we’ve also never had sex, so I wouldn’t know about the chemistry, but drinking champagne naked in bed sounds like a pretty good date to me. And I have no idea who Kyle is, but clearly he’s a guy who needs to get his act together. Because you’re right—no one wants or needs a bland, neutral, polite relationship.”

Samantha sat without moving. Without breathing.

Who…?

Charlotte was supposed to be calling two people for her: Kyle, and Brodie McKintyre, the guy who owned the lodge in the Scottish Highlands.

If she hadn’t been speaking to Kyle, then that could only mean…

Without saying another word, she reached for the vodka and downed it in one gulp.

*********

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