October 26, 2023
Published in the US as
The Book Club Hotel
Sept 19, 2023
The Christmas Book Club
THE NUMBER ONE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER!
At the Maple Sugar Inn in snowy Vermont, owner Hattie Coleman specializes in making her guests’ dreams come true. But this Christmas, her only dream is making it through the festive season. Widowed far too young, and exhausted from juggling the hotel with being a dedicated single mom, Hattie is close to the edge. She can only hope that her recent heart-stopping kiss with close friend Noah won’t tip her over it…
Then Erica, Claudia and Anna check in for their annual book club holiday. They’re bonded by years of friendship and a deep love of books, yet it’s clear to Hattie their emotional baggage is piled higher than the presents under her Christmas tree! But nothing prepares her for how deeply her own story is about to become entwined in theirs. And as the holidays draw closer, can these four women come together to improve each other’s lives and make this the start of a whole new chapter?
Note that in the US, Canada and Australia the title of this book is The Book Club Hotel!
"With charming characters, an idyllic setting, humorous moments, and complex relationships, Morgan’s novel is everything readers could ask for on their holiday wish list." Starred Review Library Journal
“Maple Sugar Inn, how may I help you?” Hattie answered the phone with a smile on her face because she’d discovered that it was impossible to sound defeated, moody or close to tears when you were smiling, and currently she was all those things.
“I’ve been planning a trip to Vermont in winter for years and then I spotted pictures of your inn on social media,” a woman gushed, “and it looks so cozy and welcoming. The type of place you can’t help but relax.”
It’s an illusion, Hattie thought. There was no relaxation to be had here; not for her, at any rate. Her head throbbed and her eyes pricked following another night without sleep. The head housekeeper was threatening to walk out and the executive chef had been late two nights running and she was worried tonight might be the third, which would be a disaster because they were fully booked. Chef Tucker had earned their restaurant that coveted star, and his confit of duck had been known to induce moans of ecstasy from diners, but there were days when Hattie would have traded that star for a chef with a more even temperament. His temper was so hot she sometimes wondered why he bothered switching on the grill. He could have yelled at the duck and it would have been thoroughly singed in the flames of his anger. He was being disrespectful and taking advantage of her. Hattie knew that, and she also knew she should probably fire him but Brent had chosen him, and firing him would have severed another thread from the past. Also, conflict drained her energy and right now she didn’t have enough of that to go around. It was simpler to placate him.
“I’m glad you’re impressed,” she said to the woman on the phone. “Can I make a reservation for you?”
“I hope so, but I’m very particular about the room. Can I tell you what I need?”
“Of course.” Bracing herself for a long and unachievable wish list, Hattie resisted the temptation to smack her forehead onto the desk. Instead, she reached for a pad of paper and pen that was always handy. “Go ahead.”
How bad could it be? A woman the week before had wanted to know if she could bring her pet rat with her on vacation—answer: no!—and a man the week before that had demanded that she turn down the sound of the river that ran outside his bedroom window because it was keeping him awake.
She went above and beyond in her attempts to satisfy the whims of guests but there were limits.
“I’d like the room to have a mountain view,” the woman said. “And a real fire would be a nice extra.”
“All our rooms have real fires,” Hattie said, “and the rooms at the back have wonderful views of the mountains. The ones at the front face the river.”
She relaxed slightly. So far, so straightforward.
“Mountains for me. Also, I’m particular about bedding. After all, we spend a third of our lives asleep so it’s important, don’t you agree?”
Hattie felt a twinge of envy. She definitely didn’t spend a third of her life asleep. With having a young child, owning an inn and grieving the loss of her husband, she barely slept at all. She dreamed of sleep but sadly, usually when she was awake.
“Bedding is important.” She said what was expected of her, which was what she’d been doing since the police had knocked on her door two years earlier to tell her that her beloved Brent had been killed instantly in a freak accident. A brick had fallen from a building as he’d been walking past on his way to the bank and struck him on the head.
It was mortifying to remember that her initial reaction had been to laugh—she’d been convinced it was a joke, because normal people didn’t get killed by random bricks falling from buildings, did they?—but then she’d realized they weren’t laughing and it probably wasn’t because they didn’t have a sense of humor.
She’d asked them if they were sure he was dead, and then had to apologize for questioning them because of course they were sure. How often did the police follow we’re sorry to have to tell you…with oops, we made a mistake.
After they’d repeated the bad news, she’d thanked them politely. Then she’d made them a cup of tea because she was a) half British and b) very much in shock.
When they’d drunk their tea and eaten two of her homemade cinnamon cookies, she’d shown them out as if they were treasured guests who had honored her with their presence, and not people who had just shattered her world in one short conversation.
She’d stared at the closed door for a full five minutes after they’d left while she’d tried to process it. In a matter of minutes her life had utterly changed, the future she’d planned with Brent stolen, her hopes crushed.
Even though two years had passed, there were still days when it felt unreal. Days when she still expected Brent to walk through the door with that bouncing stride of his, full of excitement because he’d had one of his brilliant ideas that he couldn’t wait to share with her.
I think we should get married…
I think we should start a family…
I think we should buy that historic inn we saw on our trip to Vermont…
They’d met in England during their final year of college and from the first moment she’d been swept away on the tide of Brent’s enthusiasm. After graduating, they’d both taken jobs in London but then two things had happened. Brent’s grandmother had died, leaving him a generous sum of money, and they’d taken a trip to Vermont. They’d fallen in love with the place, and now here she was, a widow at the age of twenty-eight, raising their five-year-old child and managing the historic inn. Alone. Since she’d lost Brent she’d tried to keep everything going the way he’d wanted it, but that wasn’t proving easy. She worried that she wasn’t able to do this on her own. She worried that she was going to lose the inn. Most of all she worried that she wasn’t going to be enough for their daughter. Now Brent was gone she had to be two people—how could she be two people when most days she didn’t even feel whole?
She realized that while she’d been indulging in a moment of maudlin self-pity, the woman on the phone was still talking. “I’m sorry, could you say that again?”
“I’d like the bedsheets to be linen because I do struggle with overheating.”
“We have linen bedding, so that won’t be a problem.”
“I’d like the linen to be pink. I find I sleep better. White is too glaring and drab colors depress me.”
“I’ll make a note.” She grabbed a notepad and scribbled Help followed by four exclamation marks. She might have written something ruder, but her daughter was a remarkably good reader and was given to demonstrating that skill wherever and whenever she could, so Hattie had learned to be mindful of what she wrote and left lying around. “Did you have a particular date in mind?”
“Christmas. It’s the best time, isn’t it?”
Not for me, Hattie thought, as she checked the room occupancy. The first Christmas after Brent had died had been hideous, and last year hadn’t been much better. She’d wanted to burrow under the covers until it was all over, but instead, she’d been expected to inject festive joy into other people’s lives. And now it was the end of November again and Christmas was just weeks away.
Still, providing she didn’t lose any more staff, she’d no doubt find a way to muddle through. She’d survived it twice, and she’d survive it a third time.
“You’re in luck. We do still have a few rooms available, including one double facing the mountains. Would you like me to reserve that for you?”
“Is it a corner room? I do like more than one window.”
“It’s not a corner room, and there is only one window in this particular room, but it has wonderful views and a covered balcony.”
“There’s no way of getting a second window?”
“Sadly not.” What was she supposed to do? Knock a hole through the wall? “But I can send you a video of the room before you make your choice if that would help.”
By the time she’d taken the woman’s email address, put a hold on the room for twenty-four hours and answered the rest of her questions, half an hour had passed.
When the woman finally ended the call, Hattie sighed. Christmas promised to be a nightmare. She made a note under the reservation. Pink sheets. Linen.
How would Brent handle it? It was a question she asked herself a million times a day and she allowed herself to glance at one of the two photographs she kept on the desk. This one was of Brent swinging their daughter high in the air. Both were laughing. Sometimes, she’d discovered, remembering the best of times sustained you through the worst.
She was about to search the internet for pink linen sheets when someone cleared their throat in an exaggerated fashion.
She looked up to find Stephanie, the head housekeeper, glowering at her.
Stephanie had been another of Brent’s appointments. Almost all the staff had been Brent’s choice. Before Brent had recruited her, Stephanie had been head housekeeper at a renowned hotel in Boston. Her credentials are impeccable, he’d said after he’d interviewed Stephanie, and she’s ferociously organized and capable.
Hattie had agreed with the ferocious part. She’d pointed out that Stephanie’s manner had bordered on rude and that she might be difficult to manage, but Brent had dismissed her concerns and assured her that he’d be handling the staff so it wouldn’t be her problem. Except that now she was handling it, and it was her problem. Everything was her problem.
“Do you have a sore throat, Stephanie?” She knew she shouldn’t have said it, but she was ground down by the woman’s relentlessly negative attitude. Dealing with her was energy sapping. Stephanie had respected Brent—there had been moments when Hattie had wondered whether she’d been feeling something more than respect—and responded to his unbridled enthusiasm for everything, but clearly found Hattie’s more gentle nature nothing but an irritation.
“I have bigger problems than a sore throat. That stupid girl somehow gathered up a red item with the bed linen when she was dealing with The River Room.”
Hattie pretended to be clueless. “I’m not sure who you mean.”
“Chloe.” Stephanie’s mouth was a tight line. “She’s a disaster. I have lost count of the number of times I have warned her to shake out the linen to make sure guests haven’t left anything in the bed. I warned you not to hire her and I have no idea why you did. And now this has happened.”
Hattie had hired Chloe because she was friendly and enthusiastic, which she believed to be important qualities. An establishment like the Maple Sugar Inn survived on its reputation, and that was only as strong as its staff. Chloe made people feel nurtured and important. Stephanie was more like a Doberman guarding a compound.
“Chloe is warm and helpful and the guests love her. I’m sure she won’t do it again.”
“Brent would never have hired her.”
Hattie felt as if she’d been kicked in the stomach. “Brent isn’t here.”
Stephanie had the grace to flush. “I do realize the last few years have been hard for you, Harriet, and you’re not a natural manager, but you have to be firm with staff. You’re the innkeeper. You’re the one in charge now. Your problem is that you’re too nice. A good manager should be able to fire someone.”
Hattie had no intention of firing Chloe. She was one of the few members of staff who didn’t bring tension into the room with her.
“This is her first job,” Hattie said. “She’s learning. Mistakes happen.”
“This is supposed to be a quality establishment. Quality establishments don’t tolerate mistakes.”
The whole venture was a mistake, Hattie thought wearily. What were you thinking, Brent? “I’ll talk to her. Where is she?”
“In the laundry room, crying. I just hope she’s not blowing her nose in the sheets.”
Maybe they could cry together, Hattie thought as she made her way through the welcoming reception area and past the open door of the library. She gave the well-stocked bookshelves a longing look, wishing she had time to snuggle down in an armchair in front of the flickering log fire and escape for a while. The library was her favorite room and nothing pleased her more than seeing someone curled up on one of the sofas with a book.
Occasionally, she envied her guests, who were pampered and cared for, their every need anticipated, their every wish granted. Her guests did seem happy and most of them booked again, so maybe she wasn’t doing such a bad job as an innkeeper even if she was a terrible people manager. Was she a terrible people manager? Or was it just that she wasn’t good at managing terrible people?
She headed downstairs and found Chloe exactly where Stephanie had said—in the laundry room.
Her eyes were red and she scrubbed her face with her hand when she saw Hattie.
“I’m sorry,” Chloe muttered. “She told me I had to change the bed in four minutes, so I was going for speed. I messed up, I know I did, but Mrs. Bowman frowns so much that she makes me nervous and flustered and then I make mistakes.”
Hattie wondered if she should confess that Stephanie Bowman had the same effect on her.
“Don’t worry about it.” She patted the girl on the shoulder. “Everything is fine.”
“No, it isn’t. The bedding is ruined.” Chloe’s face was scarlet. “It’s supposed to be snow-white, and now it’s pink. And not pale pink, but pink. I’m going to try washing it again, but I think the color is stuck fast. It will have to be thrown away.”
“It really doesn’t—” Hattie let her hand drop. “Wait a moment. Did you say pink?”
“Yes. It was a hat. I think it was part of Mr. Graham’s Santa suit. He hired it, and it obviously wasn’t colorfast.” She frowned. “And it’s weird, because I could have sworn I’d packed the whole suit away for them, including the hat. I was very careful, but somehow the hat was mixed up with the laundry so I guess not.”
Hattie blinked. “Santa suit?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Graham from Ohio. They spent two nights in the Cider Suite. He told me that Mrs. Graham’s fantasy was to spend a night with Santa, so he hired a suit to surprise her.”
“I don’t think he cared about that. He also bought a festive-themed sex toy, but I didn’t ask for details. I thought it might ruin Christmas for me.”
“Indeed.” Hattie was so fascinated she momentarily forgot how tired she was. “How do you know all this?”
“People talk to me,” Chloe said, “which can sometimes be a little alarming, to be honest, but it does lead to interesting revelations.”
“And pink sheets.” Hattie grabbed a box of tissues from the shelf in the laundry room and handed her one. “Stop crying, Chloe. You might just have done me a favor.”
Chloe took the tissue and blew her nose. “I have?”
“Yes. There are guests who would apparently love to sleep in pink sheets. They’re soothing, didn’t you know?”
“No—” The girl looked dazed. “I didn’t know.”
“Well, now you do. Put the pink sheets to one side. Do not throw them away.” Hattie hurried back to the reception desk where Stephanie was tapping her foot.
Hattie took a deep breath and smiled, hoping to reduce the tension and soften her mood. “All sorted.”
Stephanie paused the foot tapping but didn’t look remotely softened. “You fired her?”
“No, I didn’t fire her. It was a mistake.” Or was it something else entirely? Something Chloe had said niggled in the back of her brain. “Odd, really, because she seemed convinced that she’d packed the red hat away with the rest of the Santa suit Mr. Graham brought with him. She couldn’t figure out how it got mixed up with the rest of the laundry.”
Stephanie’s expression didn’t flicker. “Probably because she’s careless. You’re far too lenient. Brent would have fired her.”
There was no way Brent would have fired Chloe, but he would have found a way to manage Stephanie.
She had a feeling that Stephanie wanted her to fail.
“We’re a team,” Hattie said, “and our job is to support one another.” Fortunately for her, Gwen and Ellen Bishop, two sisters in their eighties who had been regular guests since the inn had opened, chose that moment to wander into reception. Hattie had never been so relieved to see anyone. “Excuse me, Stephanie. I need to attend to our guests.”
She hurried across to the Bishop sisters and greeted them as if they were a lifeboat in stormy seas. “How was your breakfast?”
“Delicious as usual.” Gwen beamed. “The maple syrup is the best we’ve tasted anywhere. Everything here is just perfect as it always is, and it’s all down to you, dearest Hattie.”
If only everyone were so good-natured and easily pleased.
“We’ll give you a bottle to take home, Miss Bishop. I’ll arrange it right now.”
“I’ve told you so many times to call me Gwen, honey.” Gwen patted Hattie’s arm gently. “You’re looking tired. You’re not sleeping?”
“I’m fine,” Hattie lied and Gwen gave her a compassionate look.
“Keep going,” the older woman said softly. “One day at a time, one step at a time. That’s what I used to tell myself when I lost my Bill.”
“I used to tell you that, too,” Ellen said and Gwen nodded.
“You did tell me that. Daily. I wanted to tip my breakfast on your head.”
“It’s what sisters are for.”
Hattie felt a pang of envy. It would have been nice to have a sister, but her mother had died a week after Hattie was born, and her dad had never married again. She and her father had been close and she still felt the loss, never more so than when Brent had been killed. I need you, Dad.
She especially missed him at Christmas. Her dad had always made Christmas special.
“The problem,” Gwen said, “is that people are sympathetic at the beginning, and then they think it’s time for you to move on. They don’t realize that grief never leaves you.”
Hattie nodded. Usually, she saved her tears for when she was alone in the shower or walking the dog, but Gwen’s kindness had loosened the bonds of her restraint and for a moment she was afraid she might howl on the spot. Emotion gathered in her throat and bumped against her self-control.
“That’s true. I still miss my dad,” she confessed, “and he died seven years ago.”
Gwen reached out and squeezed her arm. “The people we love never leave us, not really.”
People said that, but it wasn’t true, was it? Brent had definitely left her. And he’d left her with a ton of problems to handle.
“The weather is looking good for our trip home.” Ellen briskly changed the subject. “But before we leave, we have a little something for that treasure of yours.”
“Delphine,” her sister said as if Hattie had numerous treasures to choose from.
“We’d love to say goodbye to her.”
She pulled herself together.
“She’s reading a book in my office, with Rufus. I’ll find her.” Rufus, their four-year-old Labrador, had been one of Brent’s better ideas. As well as proving himself to be a dedicated and reliable babysitter, he was also a source of unconditional love and affection. Hattie had shed so many tears into his sleek golden coat over the past two years that he barely ever needed a bath.
“Delphi?” Hattie popped her head round the office door and saw her daughter lying on her stomach, carefully turning the pages of her book while Rufus lay next to her protectively. He lifted his head, ever watchful, and thumped his tail on the floor. Delphi looked up, too.
Her face brightened. “Did you know that a T. rex had sixty teeth?”
“I did not know that. You are always teaching me something.”
“Did dinosaurs go to the dentist?”
“No, they didn’t go to the dentist.” She had no idea where Delphi got her obsession with dinosaurs but it made for non-stop entertainment.
Hattie’s heart suddenly felt full. The child was her whole world.
She was lucky and she needed to remember that.
It seemed like only yesterday she’d discovered she was pregnant. Her daughter was growing up so quickly it was scary. “You can tell me more about the dinosaurs later, but right now the Miss Bishops would like to say goodbye to you.”
“They’re leaving? No! I don’t want them to go.” Delphi scrambled to her feet, her skirt sticking to her tights. “I hate it when people leave.”
Hattie felt her chest ache. “Me, too. But they’ll be back in a month. They’re coming for Christmas, remember?” Providing life didn’t have a nasty shock in store for them, like a brick falling from a building onto their heads just as they were walking past.
She had to stop thinking like that.
She was turning into a catastrophist, and she didn’t want her daughter going through life afraid of everything, anticipating disaster at every turn.
Delphi sprinted out of the office and hugged the Miss Bishops tightly.
“Don’t go. I want you to stay forever.”
“Things move on, honey. That’s life.” Gwen stroked Delphi’s hair gently, and Ellen’s eyes grew misty.
“Dear child. We’ll be back soon and in the meantime, we have something for you. A gift.”
The sisters took it in turns to hug Delphi and then gave her a prettily wrapped package.
“A gift?” Delphi’s eyes widened and she took the package carefully. “But it’s not Christmas yet.”
“This isn’t a Christmas gift,” Ellen said. “In fact, it’s hardly a gift at all. It’s a book, and my sister and I think of a book as a necessity rather than a luxury.”
“What’s a necess-ary?” Delphi stumbled over the word.
“A necessity is something you need,” Gwen said, “like food or water.”
“Sometimes Rufus thinks books are food.” Delphi fiddled with the ribbon. “Can I open it?” She looked at her mother for permission and Hattie smiled.
“How very kind. Yes, you can. And what do you say to the Miss Bishops?”
“Thank you.” Delphi tugged at the ribbon and tore the paper. “Thank you, thank you.”
“I know you love books, dear,” Gwen said and Ellen nodded.
“Books can take you to a different world.”
A different world would be nice, Hattie thought. She’d like to be in a world that still had Brent in it, and also her dad. And with luck, her alternate world wouldn’t include Stephanie or Chef Tucker or anyone who used shouting as their primary form of communication.
She helped the Bishop sisters with their luggage and when she returned to reception the phone was ringing again.
She was about to reach for it when Stephanie stepped in front of her.
“This issue is not resolved. Either Chloe goes, or I go.”
Hattie resisted the temptation to say Go! Right now. She couldn’t afford to lose anyone, and besides, firing Stephanie would make her feel disloyal to Brent. She was trying to hold together what he’d started, not let it unravel.
The phone was still ringing, and her insides tightened with stress. If she moved to answer it, Stephanie would think she wasn’t taking her seriously.
“I hope you know how much I value you, Stephanie.” Her palms itched to pick up the phone. “You’re an important part of the Maple Sugar Inn family.” She shuddered. The thought of Stephanie as family was a step too far.
“Then something needs to change or I’m going to have a meltdown.” With that warning, Stephanie stalked away and Hattie stared after her.
I’m going to have a meltdown, too.
She turned to answer the phone but Delphi reached it first. “Maple Sugar Inn, Delphine Maisy Coleman speaking,” she spoke carefully, enunciating every word. “How may I help you?”
She glanced guiltily at her mother. She knew she wasn’t supposed to answer the phone but that didn’t stop her doing it.
“Mrs. Peterson!” A smile spread across her face. “I’ve got books! New books.”
Hattie listened as Delphi told their neighbor about her latest gift, stumbling over the words in her excitement.
“Mommy can’t talk now because she’s having a meltdown.”
Hattie winced. Had she actually said those words aloud? She needed to be more careful, particularly in front of Delphi, who was like a sponge, soaking up everything around her. Everything she overheard was stored away and then repeated at the worst possible moment.
She held out her hand for the phone and Delphi handed it over, slid off the chair and headed back to the office, where Rufus was waiting patiently, his head on his paws.
“Hello, Lynda. How are you?”
“I’m fine, honey, but how are you? We haven’t seen you for a while. Delphi said you were having a meltdown.”
“She misheard. It’s a new dessert we’re trying in the restaurant.” Hattie improvised wildly. “It’s a chocolate pudding filled with melted chocolate. We’re calling it a meltdown.”
“Sounds delicious. I can’t wait to try it. I know I say this all the time, but Delphi is a delight. You’re a wonderful mother, Hattie, and you’re coping so well. Brent would be proud.”
Was she coping? She was surviving, but was that the same thing?
She knew she was lucky to have neighbors like the Petersons. They owned the farm adjacent to the inn and supplied produce to the kitchens, and also the Christmas trees that Hattie used to decorate for the holidays. What had started as a business relationship had turned into a deep friendship.
Lynda had once mentioned how much she would have loved to have a daughter, and Hattie had been tempted to reply, Adopt me, I’m available.
“Hattie?” Lynda’s voice was gentle. “Are you doing okay, honey?”
“Yes. Absolutely. Brilliant.”
“Because if you need help, you know we’re here. Noah can be over there in a flash if there’s something that needs fixing.”
She grew tense and her heart pumped a little harder. “He doesn’t need to come over. Everything is good.”
Noah was the Petersons’ son, and he worked the farm with his father.
He’d been a good friend to Hattie, until a few weeks earlier when she’d ruined everything. It had been the night of the Halloween party that the Petersons held every year on their farm for the local community. The children dressed up, there were ghost hunts and spooky experiences and plenty of sugar-loaded treats.
And there was Noah.
She closed her eyes. She’d promised herself she wasn’t going to think about it again. It was just a kiss; that was all. She’d been having a really bad day, feeling lost and lonely and a little afraid of the future and he’d been there, broad shouldered and solid, kind and yes—she was going to admit it—sexy. She was a widow—she hated that word so much—and Noah was single, so there really wasn’t an issue except that now she felt embarrassed, and horribly awkward and not at all sure what she’d say when she saw him again.
Worst of all she felt guilty. She’d loved Brent. She still loved Brent. She’d always love Brent. But she’d kissed Noah, and that single, earthshattering, mind-blowing kiss had been the best thing that had happened to her in the past two years, and also the most confusing.
“Don’t send Noah. Nothing needs fixing, Lynda.” Except her. She definitely needed fixing. Why had she kissed Noah? She could blame the dark or being spooked by the ghost noises the kids made in the forest, or the glass of “witches’ brew” that had turned out to be a great deal more potent than she’d imagined and guaranteed to knock the most hardened witch right off her broomstick. But mostly she blamed herself. “Are you calling for a reason?”
“Yes. Noah wanted to know if you’ve decided on your Christmas tree order for this year. He’ll want to reserve the best for you.”
The fact that he hadn’t called himself told her he regretted their encounter as much as she did.
“I need to have a think, Lynda, but I’ll email Noah soon.”
“Email?” Lynda sounded mildly bemused. “You could just tell him in person, honey.”
She could, but that would mean actually looking him in the eye and she wasn’t ready for that. She was pretty sure he wasn’t, either. She knew little about his relationship history. He’d lived in Boston after he graduated and had worked for a digital marketing company. Seeing how comfortable he was working outdoors, she struggled to imagine him in a glass-fronted office staring at a screen, but apparently that was what he’d done until his father had crashed one of the tractors and narrowly escaped with his life. Noah had returned home and he’d worked the farm with his parents ever since, spending any free time he had converting one of the barns into a home for himself.
“He’s busy, and I’m busy and I could call obviously, but email might be easier.” Also less awkward for both of them.
Lynda paused. “Whatever is best for you, of course. When you decide, just let us know. And you and Delphi should come up here that first weekend in December like you did last year. We’ll be doing sled rides and snowshoeing. The two of you could help me make some of the wreaths and garlands and then you can head out into the forest with Noah and pick a special tree for your own living room. I’d love to see you, and it would be fun for Delphi. Remember when she used to call Noah ‘the Christmas tree man’?”
“I do. She still thinks of him that way.” Maybe she could somehow arrange for Delphi and Noah to choose a tree together and she could help Lynda in the kitchen.
“The Maple Sugar Inn is always a picture at Christmas. I know it’s a busy time, so you’re to promise me you’ll reach out if you need anything.”
“I will.” Hattie was touched by Lynda’s kindness. “Thank you.”
“It has been tough for you, I know. Life has pulled the rug out from under your feet, that’s for sure, but there’s some comfort in knowing that you’re living your dream.”
No, Hattie thought, she wasn’t living her dream. She was living Brent’s dream, and it wasn’t the same thing. But she couldn’t possibly tell anyone that. This place had meant everything to Brent, and all of their savings had gone into making it what it was today. In the beginning she’d had a few ideas of her own, but Brent hadn’t thought they would work so they’d followed his plan. She was the caretaker of his dreams and the pressure was crushing.
What if she messed it all up? She loved the guests and enjoyed making their stay special but managing the staff was killing her.
Perhaps that was why she’d kissed Noah. For a brief time she’d wanted to throw off the weight of life and feel young, and light and lost in the moment instead of weighed down by responsibility and anxiety for the future.
She was twenty-eight, and most of the time she felt a hundred.
Having assured Lynda again that she absolutely did not need help, she ended the call and felt Delphi’s arms wrap around her legs.
“Mommy, are you sad?”
Hattie pulled herself together. “I’m not sad. This isn’t my sad face. It’s my thoughtful face.”
“Are you thinking about Christmas? I think about Christmas a lot.”
“Yes, I was absolutely thinking about Christmas.” Not Noah, or the seductive pressure of his mouth, or that fleeting moment when she’d felt that maybe, just maybe, life might be good again one day if she could just hold on. “Can’t wait.”
“Can we get a tree tomorrow?” Delphi gazed up at her hopefully and she stroked her daughter’s hair, feeling those soft curls tickle her palm.
“Not yet, honey. We have to wait until the first week of December, otherwise the tree will be—” She paused. Dead wasn’t her favorite word right now “—tired. It will be tired by the time Christmas Day comes.”
And the tree wasn’t the only one who would be tired.
As the Bishop sisters would say—that’s life.
She needed a miracle, but those were thin on the ground so she was willing to settle for a chef who didn’t have anger-management issues, a housekeeper who didn’t have a permanent sense of humor failure, and friendly guests.
Was she really going to do this? It broke all her rules. It was everything she avoided.
Maybe turning forty had blown something in her brain.
Erica lay on her stomach on the bed, feeling as if she was about to step over a cliff edge. Her laptop screen displayed an image of a picture book-perfect inn, surrounded by snow and bathed in a holiday glow. Lights shone from the windows. It was described by reviewers as magical and romantic. Erica didn’t believe in magic, and she wasn’t romantic. She stared at it and felt her heart start to pound. Doubts burrowed into her brain and nudged at her resolve. Once she did it, that was it. There was no changing her mind. No rowing back on the decision.
Muttering under her breath, she stood up and paced to the window of her hotel room. Beyond the windows the city was alive with activity. People walked quickly, heads down, wrapped up against the bitter cold. In the square below people seemed to be setting up some sort of market.
She leaned her head against the glass.
What was wrong with her? She was a decisive person, and she’d made this decision the same way she made all her decisions, by considering pros and cons. There was no logical reason to feel stressed. And yet, here she was, stressed.
On impulse, she reached for her phone.
If she was doing this, then she needed her friends there.
Feeling shaky and a little unsteady, she tried Claudia first but it went straight to voice mail, which worried her a little. Claudia’s ten-year relationship had imploded six months earlier and she’d been having a difficult time. Erica called her frequently to check on her, and usually she picked up right away.
But not today.
She tried calling again, and this time considered leaving a message, but decided against it. What would she say? Hey, it’s Erica and I need you to stop me doing something I’m going to regret. Claudia had enough problems of her own.
She called Anna instead.
Her friend answered almost immediately.
“Erica! I didn’t expect to hear from you today. I thought you were traveling.” There was a clatter in the background. “How does it feel to be forty? Is it any different? I’m not sure whether I should be dreading the day or not. Will I need a therapist? I can’t wait to get together so I can celebrate with you.”
Erica waited until her friend paused to take a breath. “Forty feels no different from thirty-nine.” That wasn’t quite true, but she didn’t intend to dwell on it. “Thanks for your birthday message. Your singing is still awful, by the way. Took me right back to college and having to use earphones whenever you took a shower.”
“Pete would sympathize with you, but I love singing so I’m not going to stop for anyone. So what’s wrong? Tell me.”
“Why would anything be wrong?”
“Because you don’t normally call me at breakfast time,” Anna said. “You’re usually in a meeting.”
“I’m in Berlin. It’s lunchtime.”
“Berlin? I’m envious. Are you visiting the Christmas markets?”
Erica glanced back toward the window, wondering if that was what was happening in the square below. “Of course I’m not visiting the Christmas markets. This is me you’re talking to. I’m working. There’s a conference. Also, it’s November.”
“Christmas markets are often open in November. You could sneak out, surely.”
How could two people who were so different be such good friends?
“I could sneak out, but why would I?”
“To enjoy yourself? To get in the Christmas mood? Any of those things ringing bells? No, I guess not. Never mind. Claudia and I have long since given up trying to fill you with festive joy. So if you’re not calling to make me jealous with talk of gingerbread and handmade crafts, why are you calling?”
“I’m calling because I’ve found the perfect place.” She sat back down on the bed and stared at her laptop screen. It wasn’t a lie. It was the perfect place.
“Perfect place for what?” Anna’s voice was suddenly muffled. “Hold on—”
Erica winced as a loud crash came down her headphones. “What’s that noise? Do you have intruders in the house?”
“Do my kids count as intruders?” Anna sounded distracted, as if Erica’s call was just one of ten things she was doing simultaneously. “If so, then yes—wait a second, Erica, you’ve called at crazy hour.”
Was there a moment in Anna’s household that wasn’t crazy hour? It seemed to Erica that whenever she called, her friend was neck deep in something. Supporting with homework, supervising music practice, washing sports kits, cooking dinners, making packed lunches. Her friend was basically a one-woman room service.
She heard laughter down the phone and then Anna’s voice, slightly distant.
That’s brilliant. So funny, Meg. I love it. But just because you’re a talented artist doesn’t mean you’re allowed to leave your bowl on top of the dishwasher! I know your father does it. That doesn’t mean you have permission to do it. Now go—I’m catching up with Erica.
Conversations with Anna were always the same—noisy and disjointed, punctuated by a background of family activity and interruptions. Part of her found it frustrating—how did Anna stand it?—but another part of her was grateful for moments like this because they made her feel better about her life decisions. Not that she often questioned herself, but occasionally she did. To be in Anna’s house was to be engulfed by warmth, wrapped and supported by those closely intertwined threads of family love. It made Erica feel unsettled. It made her question decisions she didn’t want to question. It made her wonder if she’d made all the wrong choices.
But she knew she hadn’t. Everyone thought that having a family was the best thing. But was it, really? Would she want what Anna had?
No, she would not. Yes, there were occasions when she envied her friend her warm, stable family and at other times—and this was one of them—she was grateful for her independent, uninterrupted single life where her only real responsibility was to herself.
She felt a pleasurable rush of anticipation as she contemplated the afternoon and evening ahead. After this call she’d do the work she needed to do, then she’d be heading to the hotel spa for an indulgent massage before dining alone at the table with the best view in the restaurant.
She didn’t have to cook her own meal—someone would do it for her. She didn’t have to launder clothes—the hotel would do that, and return them perfectly pressed. She didn’t have to worry about loading the dishwasher. And as for being alone—well, alone didn’t worry her. She’d been alone for most of her life. She knew that some people pitied her, and their sympathy made her smile because they had no idea just how good alone could feel.
In her case it was a choice, not a curse. Right now, listening to her friend trying to extract herself from domestic demands, it felt like the best possible choice.
In her life she was her number-one priority and for that she had no intention of apologizing.
“Are you still there?” Anna was breathless. “Sorry about that.”
“Bad time?” She said it lightly. “Shall I call back?”
“No! It’s been ages since we talked. I really want to catch up. But Meg just drew this brilliant cartoon—I’ll send it to you. Oh, wait a minute—Meg, don’t forget your art project!”
Erica sighed. She probably had time to check over her presentation while she waited. Or maybe even write a novel. And why was Anna reminding Meg not to forget her art project?
She knew nothing about raising children, but she did know that encouraging dependence helped no one. Her mother had never reminded her about anything. If Erica forgot something then she was expected to take the consequences, and if those consequences were harsh then it would serve as a reminder not to forget next time.
Erica’s father had walked out on them when she was born, apparently after seeing Erica for the first time—she tried not to take it personally. He’d left Erica’s mother with heartache, a baby and a bundle of stress and anxiety. Although she had no memory of him, Erica had, over the years, witnessed the impact of his behavior. She’d watched her mother struggle, and understood and admired her determination to never again rely on anyone.
She also understood that her mother’s experience had impacted on the way she’d raised Erica. She’d insisted that Erica do everything herself, from homework to tying her shoelaces. If she fell over, then she had to figure out a way to get up again. Her mother refused to pick her up. If she failed an exam, then her mother told her to work harder. If Erica had a problem, then it was up to her to find a solution. Her mother never solved anything for her.
And it seemed like a good upbringing to Erica. After all, she’d turned out just fine, hadn’t she? Thanks to a powerful work ethic, she was financially independent. She didn’t have to clear up after anyone, or share the controls of her wickedly indulgent media system. There were no fights about laundry or homework. No putting herself last as women with children so often did. She didn’t expect anyone to do anything for her. And she didn’t need a man to make her life complete. She’d seen her mother work herself to the point of burnout to compensate for her father’s deficiencies. She’d played the role of both parents, thus proving to Erica that men were like candy. Fine as an occasional treat, but not necessary for survival.
Thinking how right her life was made her wonder why she was about to do something that felt so wrong.
“I’m still here! Don’t hang up.” Anna’s voice was barely audible above the sound of running water and multiple conversations. “Do not feed that to the dog or our next trip will be to the vet! Wait a moment. I’m going to lock myself in Pete’s study.”
Erica reflected on the fact that the only way her friend could have an uninterrupted conversation was to lock herself in her husband’s home office.
Anna was nothing like Erica’s mother. Anna was one of those mothers you read about in books. If her kids fell over, not only did she help them up, but she also gave them hugs, kind words and cookies. If they needed help, she offered it willingly. She considered it her job to cushion her family. Erica had no doubt that Anna would fling herself in front of a car if it meant saving one of her children. It was all very nurturing and safe, but it was a world far from Erica’s experience.
“Not in his study, fortunately. He’s back in the office three days a week. I miss not having him around, to be honest.” The clattering and banging faded and then a door slammed and Anna sighed. “Peace. Finally. I don’t suppose you want to swap lives?”
Erica tried not to shudder.
“We both know you love your life. So…what’s going on with you?”
“Wow, where to start?” Anna sounded breathless. “It’s been busy here. Pete got a promotion, so that’s good but he’s working longer hours. Meg won an art prize and—get this—she’s started knitting. She says it relaxes her. Expect a new sweater for Christmas. I’ve already told her that I’ll tolerate reindeer, but I’m not wearing a giant grinning Santa. Daniel is doing fine, although he’s been a bit quiet lately. I’m sure something is going on but so far I haven’t been able to persuade him to talk about it. If something is wrong with Meg she just lets it all out, but boys are different. I really encourage him to express his feelings—I don’t want him to be one of those men who just won’t talk—” Anna rambled on for another five minutes and eventually, Erica interrupted.
“What about you? What’s happening in your life?”
“I’ve just been telling you about my life.”
“No. So far, I’ve heard about the kids and Pete. Nothing about you.”
“This is my life. The kids and Pete. And the house, of course. And the dog. Don’t forget the dog. I know, I know, you think I’m boring, but honestly I love it.”
They both laughed and Erica wondered whether if she’d met a man like Pete on her first day in college, her life might have turned out differently. “You’re not boring. And you two are ridiculously cute together, even after all these years.”
Anna herself wasn’t boring, but Erica had to admit that sometimes her life seemed boring. She tried to imagine a day without international travel, the buzz of work, the high she got from securing a deal or being called in to handle a crisis situation when everyone else was floundering.
“Well, thank you, but that’s enough about me—I want to hear about you. I want to know more about your birthday. And what are you doing in Berlin?”
“I’m speaking at a conference on crisis management this afternoon.” Erica glanced at the stack of papers on the table by the window.
Anna gave a moan of envy. “I shouldn’t have asked. You’re no doubt staying in a five-star hotel with room service and an incredible spa.”
Erica thought about the massage awaiting her. “The spa is good.”
“Tell me all about it, but start with your birthday. Please tell me you spent it with a gorgeous man.”
Erica smiled. “I spent the evening with Jack.”
“Sexy Jack the lawyer?” Anna gasped and then laughed. “Tell me! And do not leave out a single detail.”
“Nothing to tell. Jack and I often hook up if we both happen to be in town and have an event to attend. You know that. It’s not serious, and it’s how we both like it.”
“Erica, you’re forty. Hooking up is for twenty-somethings. And you’ve been sleeping together for at least two years. It’s time sexy Jack started leaving a toothbrush at your place.”
It was such a typically Anna response that Erica rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure who would be more horrified by that idea, him or me. And could you stop calling him sexy Jack?”
“Why? I’ve seen his photo. Claudia and I looked him up. He could defend me in court any day. So you’re saying he didn’t stay the night?”
“He stayed until about three in the morning and then took a cab home.” She didn’t confess that he’d suggested staying and that she’d almost agreed. Force of habit and relentless discipline had stopped her, but the impulse had shaken her.
Turning forty had definitely affected her brain. She and Jack had an understanding, and staying overnight and enjoying leisurely breakfasts was an intimacy neither of them wanted. They’d met when she’d needed legal advice for one of her clients, and had enjoyed each other’s company sufficiently that they’d started seeing each other casually. A dinner here. An event there. There was no routine to it and no assumptions of commitment.
“You should invite him to stay. Go away for a weekend or something.”
“What? I like Jack. Jack is perfect for you.”
“You’ve never met Jack.”
“I feel as if I have. And I love the fact that the two of you have a relationship.”
“We don’t have a relationship. We’re both too busy to nurture a relationship with anyone, which is why if he needs a plus-one for a work event, he calls me. If there’s a play I want to see and I feel like company, I call him. He has a quick brain so occasionally I’ll talk through a work issue with him. That’s it.”
“You’ve missed out the sex part.”
“Yes, we have sex. Great sex. Happy?”
“Very. And so are you, by the sounds of it.” Anna still had the same filthy giggle she’d had when she was eighteen, and Erica couldn’t help smiling. Deep down Anna was the same person she’d always been. Maybe they all were. Age didn’t change that.
“Calm down. Jack and I are strictly casual.”
“Don’t. You’re breaking my heart. You’re forty, Erica.”
“Could you stop slipping that into every sentence?”
“Sorry, it’s just that I want a happy ending for you.”
“This is my happy ending. This is how I want my life to look.”
Anna sighed. “How long are you in Berlin?”
“Two nights.” Erica glanced at her laptop and felt a twinge of guilt. She probably ought to be working. On the other hand, she could give her presentation in her sleep. She’d built up a good team and started to delegate more, giving herself the opportunity to pick and choose how she spent her time.
“I could give a talk on crisis management,” Anna said. “My life is one big crisis, although never of the exciting sort. Yesterday the freezer broke, and the day before that the car died. Anyway, you don’t want to hear about that. You said you’d found the perfect place. For what?”
Erica kept her voice casual. “For our book club meetup in December.”
“Oh.” Anna’s tone changed.
“What? We talked about this. We reserved the date.”
“Provisionally. But that was back in the summer because Claudia was a mess so we couldn’t make our usual week. No one mentioned it again so I thought we’d all agreed it wouldn’t work.”
“Why wouldn’t it work? The basic ingredients are all the same. We are the Hotel Book Club. This is the point where I remind you that I wanted to call it the Luxury Hotel Book Club just so that there could be no confusion about where I wanted to be staying, but the point is all we need is a hotel, a book and the three of us. That’s it.”
“It’s not the book club that’s the problem. It’s the time of year. It feels weird going away so close to Christmas. Christmas is family time. Buying the tree, wrapping the presents, decorating the house. We have a routine. Traditions. Sorry, I know you don’t do any of that. Am I being tactless?”
“Why would that be tactless? You know I’m not sentimental about the holidays.”
“I know, but that date you picked is when we head to the forest to choose our tree. We’ve done it every year since the kids were born. It’s their favorite tradition. I’d hate to disappoint them.”
Erica tried to relate and failed. For her, Christmas was just another day of the week. Growing up, her mother had encouraged her to fly the nest and live her own life as soon as possible. Never once had she suggested they choose a Christmas tree together.
“You just had Thanksgiving together.”
“Christmas is different.”
“Get your tree at the beginning of December. That way you’ll be able to enjoy treading on fallen needles for longer. Your kids can’t be your life, Anna. That puts pressure on them, and on you. And they’re adults now.”
“Ha! You wouldn’t always know that,” Anna said. “Do you have any idea how complicated a teenager can be?”
No, of course she didn’t know. She’d never been in a position where she’d contemplated having children, and she had no regrets about that. Her career was exciting and constantly stimulating. Would she have been prepared to sacrifice that to stay at home and argue about loading a dishwasher and feeding the dog? No way.
“We’re talking about one week, Anna, that’s all. You’ll be back before Christmas, so you’ll have plenty of time to deck the halls or whatever it is you do. Friend time and family time. Best of both worlds.”
“I need to think about it,” Anna said. “It’s my favorite time of year and I really want to feel Christmassy. No offense, but Christmas stuff makes you shudder.”
“I promise not to shudder.” Erica didn’t have much clue what feeling Christmassy involved, but she was willing to do some research and provide whatever was needed to keep her friend happy. Surely you could book these things as extras in a hotel? “And if you want Christmassy, then you’re going to love the place I’ve found. It’s idyllic. Quaint.” Her heart beat a little faster. “Even Santa would drool over it.”
“I don’t believe you. You choose sophisticated boutique hotels that make me want to redecorate my home. You don’t do quaint.”
“This time I have, but fortunately I’ve done it without sacrificing luxury. It’s the perfect compromise for everyone.”
“Mmm.” Anna clearly needed convincing. “What about the book? Have we decided what we’re reading? These days I fall asleep standing up so reading takes me a while. Did you talk to Claudia about doing book club in December?”
“I tried. She’s not picking up. I’ll call her later. She sounded really down when I spoke to her a few days ago so I want to check on her. After everything that has happened this year, a week away somewhere might be just what she needs.”
“You’re right. It’s time to help her get back on her feet,” Anna said. “But much as I love Claudia I do not want to plough my way through another biography of a chef or a politician as our book choice.”
Trying to find a book that appealed to all of them was always a challenge. Anna loved romantic fiction, Erica enjoyed thrillers and true crime, while Claudia preferred nonfiction.
“I was going to suggest the new Catherine Swift. It’s called Her Last Lover.”
“What?” Anna choked with laughter. “I’m officially worried. First, you tell me you’ve found somewhere Christmassy to stay, and now you’re reading romance? Is this what hitting forty has done to you?”
“This isn’t a romance.”
“She’s a romance novelist. I’ve read every single book she has written, most of them more than once. And you said the book is called Her Last Lover. That’s romantic. The last man she ever loves.”
“It’s not romantic. He’s her last lover because she kills him.”
“Oh!” Anna’s shock reverberated down the phone. “Are you sure you have the right author? Catherine Swift?”
“I think she’s writing this one under L.C. Swift or something. But the book is a thriller. The reviews are excellent and the movie is already in production.”
“I didn’t know she’d switched genres,” Anna said. “You’ve just broken my heart. Her last book was brilliant. Made me cry. That ending. Is this one scary? You know I don’t do scary.”
“I haven’t read it yet, but I promise we can keep the lights on if you’re scared. I’ve ordered you both a copy. Arriving tomorrow.”
“Does it have blood on the cover? I hate books that have blood on the cover.”
“No blood. Just a wedding ring and a very sharp-looking knife.” She could almost feel Anna’s shudder. “I’ll cover it in snowflake paper if that helps. Aren’t you a little intrigued as it’s Catherine Swift and she is your favorite author?”
“I don’t know. But I’m a little relieved you haven’t had a personality transplant overnight. I was starting to worry. Now, tell me more about this place you’ve found for us to stay.”
Erica felt something uncurl inside her. “I’ve sent you a link. Check your email.”
There was a pause and a sound of keys being tapped. “Okay, now I’m sure you’ve had a bang on the head,” Anna said. “This is—wow. It looks like something from a fairy tale.”
Fairy tales often had grim endings, Erica thought, and felt another stab of doubt.
“Yes, although—” there was another pause “—this really doesn’t seem like you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a city person,” Anna said. “This place will be all about snowshoeing and cozy nights in front of the fire with hot cocoa. I’m the one who loves fresh air and walks in the country. You’re all about bright lights, cocktails and designer shopping.”
“That’s true, but I do that all the time. This is an escape.”
Escape? Who was she kidding?
“But you don’t usually want to escape. Nothing frustrates you more than being in the middle of nowhere. Remember that summer we booked that hotel in the Catskills? You left a day early.”
She’d forgotten how well Anna knew her.
“There was a crisis.”
“Mmm. I seem to recall that the crisis was that the phone signal was unreliable, which is why we’ve done city breaks ever since. This place you’ve found looks amazing, but it’s not you. What’s going on?”
For a moment she considered telling her friend the truth. All of it, including the real reason she’d chosen this place. But if she told the truth, Anna would ask her lots of probing questions that Erica wasn’t ready to answer.
She wanted to tread cautiously. Anna would dive right in like an out-of-control puppy, creating havoc, and Erica would risk losing control of what happened next. She didn’t want to lose control. Whatever happened, or didn’t happen, she wanted it to be her decision.
“Nothing is going on. I knew the only way to tempt you from your nest at Christmas was to produce the perfect Christmas getaway complete with all the festive trimmings. Instead of the No-Phone-Signal Hotel Book Club, it’s the Christmassy Hotel Book Club. Do you want to come or not?”
“We’ve known each other for twenty years, Erica. I know when you’re keeping secrets.”
“Twenty years? There you go again, reminding me of my age. Pretty soon we’re going to be the Retirement Hotel Book Club.” Her phone beeped with another call and she checked the screen.
Her heart jumped. That, she had not expected. Why was he calling her? He knew she was traveling this week.
She had a brief flashback to the night of her birthday, the long, leisurely dinner in a restaurant with jaw-dropping views over Manhattan. The food had been memorable, the wine delicious, but best of all was the company. Jack had made her laugh, and he’d made her feel fabulous. As if being forty was the beginning of a whole new exciting stage of her life. After dinner they’d gone back to her apartment…
She frowned, remembering. The sex had been different. Slower, more intense, more—intimate?
She stared at her phone. If Jack needed her company at an event he would have mentioned it when they were together. Or maybe it was something that had just come up, in which case he could leave a message.
She let the call go to voice mail and turned her attention back to Anna, who was still questioning Erica’s choice. “How did you even find this inn?”
She could imagine her friend’s reaction if she told the truth.
A private investigator.
“I was reading a feature on cozy winter stays.” And now she was beginning to wish she hadn’t suggested it. She could have gone on her own for a weekend to find the answers to the questions that were buzzing in her brain. She didn’t have to involve her friends. “I can find somewhere else if you prefer.”
“Don’t you dare! This place looks perfect,” Anna said. “Special. And we both know Claudia will approve because it has an award-winning restaurant and that’s the only bit that matters to her.”
Deep down had she been hoping her friend would express a preference for somewhere in the city? Or decide that she didn’t want to do this at all? That she would somehow stop Erica making what could turn out to be a huge mistake?
But far from talking her out of it, Anna seemed won over by the place.
“They have three rooms vacant. I just checked. Would they reserve them for a short time while I talk to the family? I want to see if they’re okay with it and I don’t want to lose those rooms in the meantime.”
Erica tried to imagine having to get three people’s permission before doing anything. Total nightmare. Apparently, hitting forty hadn’t changed her that much.
“I can call, but it’s only a couple of weeks away so no guarantee they will hold the rooms.”
“Your powers of persuasion are legendary. Twenty-four hours,” Anna said. “That’s all I need. And anyway, we can’t confirm until you’ve spoken to Claudia.”
“Fine, I’ll call them.”
She felt like Pandora, about to open the box.
If they lost the rooms, then that would be it. Decision made.
But if the rooms were available then this was actually going to happen, and in a few weeks she’d be checking in to the Maple Sugar Inn.
Which might turn out to be the worst idea of her life.