United Kingdom

October 28, 2021



USA

October 26, 2021



The Christmas Escape

A brand new Christmas book from Sarah Morgan coming in 2021!

 

It was supposed to be Christy Sullivan’s perfect Christmas getaway—a trip to Lapland with her family and best friend, Alix. But facing a make-or-break marriage crisis, Christy desperately needs time alone with her husband. Her solution? Alix can take Christy’s little daughter to Lapland, and they will reunite there for Christmas Day. It’s a big ask, but what else are friends for?

There’s nothing Alix won’t do for Christy. But Christy’s request to save Christmas is giving Alix sleepless nights. She knows something is wrong, but for the first time ever, Christy isn’t talking. And even the Arctic temperatures in Lapland aren’t enough to dampen the seriously inconvenient sizzle Alix is developing for Zac, a fellow guest and nemesis from her past.

As secrets unravel and unexpected romance shines under the northern lights, can Christy and Alix’s Christmas escape give them the courage to fight for the relationships they really want, and save the precious gift of each other’s friendship?

Read an Excerpt


Excerpt

Chapter One

Robyn

She hadn’t dared hope that this might happen.

Someone less cynical might have thought of it as a Christmas miracle, but Robyn no longer believed in miracles. She was terrified, but layered under the terror was a seam of something else. Hope. The kaleidoscope of emotions inside her matched the swirl and shimmer of color in the sky. Here in Swedish Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle, the unpolluted skies and clear winter nights made for frequent sightings of the northern lights.

She heard the door open behind her, heard the soft crunch of footsteps on deep snow and then felt Erik’s arms slide around her.

“Come inside. It’s cold.”

“One more minute. I need to think…” She’d always done her best thinking here, in this wild land where nature dominated, where a human felt insignificant beneath the expanse of pink-tinted sky. Everything she’d ever done that was foolish, selfish, risky or embarrassing shrank in importance because this place didn’t care.

Trees bowed under the weight of new snow, the surface glistening with delicate threads of silver and blue. The cold numbed her cheeks and froze her eyelashes, but she noticed only the beauty. Her instinct was to reach for her camera, even though she already had multiple images of the same scene.

She’d come here to escape from everything she was and everything she’d done and had fallen in love with the place and the man. It turned out that you could reinvent yourself if you moved far enough away from everyone who knew you.

Erik pulled the hood of her down jacket farther over her head. “If you’re thinking of the past, then don’t.”

How could she not?

Robyn the rebel.

Her old self felt unfamiliar now. It was like looking at an old photo and not recognizing yourself. Who was that woman?

“I can’t believe she’s coming here. She was three years old when I last saw her.”

Her niece. Her sister’s child.

She remembered a small, smiling cherub with rosy cheeks and curly blond hair. She remembered innocence and acceptance and the fleeting hope of a fresh start, before Robyn had ruined it, the way she’d ruined everything back then.

Her sister had forbidden her to ever make contact again. There had been no room for Robyn in her sister’s perfect little family unit. Even now, many years later, remembering that last encounter still made her feel shaky and sick. She tried to imagine the child as a woman. Was she like her mother? Whenever Robyn thought about her sister, her feelings became confused. Love. Hate. Envy. Irritation. She hadn’t known it was possible to feel every possible emotion within a single relationship. Elizabeth had been the golden girl. The perfect princess and, for a little while at least, her best friend in the world.

Time had eased the pain from agony to ache.

All links had been broken, until that email had arrived.

“Why did she get in touch now, after so long? She’s thirty. Grown.”

Part of her wanted to celebrate, but life had taught her to be cautious, and she knew this wasn’t a simple reunion. What if her niece was looking for answers? And what if she didn’t like what she heard?

Was this a second chance, or another emotional car crash?

“You can ask her. Face-to-face,” Erik said, “but I know you’re nervous.”

“Yes.” She had no secrets from him, although it had taken her a while to reach the point where she’d trusted their relationship not to snap. “She’s a stranger. The only living member of my family.”

Her sister was gone, killed instantly two years earlier while crossing the road. There was no fixing the past now. That door was closed.

Erik tightened his hold on her. “Your niece has a daughter, remember? That’s two family members. Three if you count her husband.”

Family. She’d had to learn to live without it.

She’d stayed away, as ordered. Made no contact. Rebuilt her life. Redesigned herself. Buried the past and traveled as far from her old life as she could. In the city she’d often felt trapped. Suffocated by the past. Here, in this snowy wilderness with nature on her doorstep, she felt free.

And then the past had landed in her in-box.

I’m Christy, your niece.

“Was it a mistake to ask her here?” It was the first time she’d invited the past into the present. “Apart from the fact we don’t know each other, do you think she’ll like this place?” For her it had been love at first sight. The stillness. The swirl of blue-green color in the sky, and the soft light that washed across the landscape at this time of year. As a photographer, the light was an endless source of fascination and inspiration. There were shades and tones she’d never seen anywhere else in the world. Midnight blue and bright jade. Icy pink and warm rose.

Some said the life up here was harsh and hard, but Robyn had known hard, and this wasn’t it. Cold wasn’t only a measure of temperature, it was a feeling. And she’d been cold. The kind of cold that froze you inside and couldn’t be fixed with thermal layers and a down jacket.

And then there was warmth, of the kind she felt now with Erik.

“Christmas in Lapland?” He sounded amused. “How can she not like it? Particularly as she has a child. Where else can she play in the snow, feed reindeer and ride on a sled through the forest?”

Robyn gazed at the trees. It was true that this was paradise for a Christmas-loving child, although that wasn’t the focus of the business. She had little experience with children and had never felt the desire to have her own. Her family was Erik. The dogs. The forest. The skies. This brilliant, brutal wilderness that felt more like home than any place she’d lived.

The main lodge had been handed down through generations of Erik’s family, but he’d expanded it to appeal to the upper end of the market. Their guests were usually discerning travelers seeking to escape. Adventurous types who appreciated luxury but were undaunted by the prospect of heading into the frozen forest or exploring the landscape on skis or snowshoes. Erik offered his services as a guide when needed, and she, as a photographer, was on hand to coach people through the intricacies of capturing the aurora on camera. You couldn’t predict it, so she’d learned patience. She’d learned to wait until nature gave her what she was hoping for.

Through the snowy branches she could see the soft glow of lights from two of their cabins, nestled in the forest. They were five in total, each named after Arctic wildlife. Wolf, Reindeer, Elk, Lynx and Bear. Each cozy cabin had floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a breathtaking view of the forest and the sky. The Snow Spa had been her idea and proved a popular addition. The focus here was wellness, with an emphasis on the nature that surrounded them. She and her small team used local resources whenever they could. Guests were encouraged to leave phones and watches behind.

Erik was right. It was the perfect escape. The question she should have asked wasn’t Will she like it here? but Will she like me?

She felt a moment of panic. “The last time I saw Christy—well, it wasn’t good.” The kitten incident. The memory of that visit was carved into her soul. Despite all her good intentions, it had gone badly wrong. “What age do children start remembering? Will she remember what happened?” She hoped not. Even now, so many years later, she could still remember the last words her sister had spoken to her.

You ruin everything. I dont want you in my life.

Robyn pressed closer to Erik and felt his arms tighten.

“It was a long time ago, Robyn. Ancient history.”

“But people don’t forget history, do they?” What had her sister told her daughter?

Robyn the rebel.

She wondered what her sister would say if she could see her now. Happy. Married to a man she loved. Living in one place. Earning a good living, although no doubt Elizabeth would see it as unconventional.

Christy, it seemed, was happily married and living an idyllic life in the country, as her mother had before her.

What would Elizabeth say if she knew her daughter was coming to visit?

Robyn gave a shiver and turned back toward the lodge.

Elizabeth wouldn’t have been happy, and if she could have stopped it, she would have done so. She wouldn’t have wanted her sister to contaminate her daughter’s perfect life.

Chapter Two

Christy

“Living the dream, Christy, living the dream.” Christy stuck a bucket under the leak in the downstairs bathroom and glanced at the spreading stain on the ceiling in despair. Sometimes it felt as if she was living in a sieve, not a cottage.

How was she going to tell Seb about this latest crisis? If one more thing goes wrong with this place…

Maybe she’d wait a few days before mentioning it. Or she could get it fixed without telling him. She still had a small amount of savings left from her mother’s estate.

She slumped against the wall and snuggled deeper into her thick sweater.

Christmas was usually her favorite time of year. Warmth, coziness, the smell of the tree and festive baking. Tradition and togetherness. She’d thought the cottage would enhance those feelings. Instead it was promising to kill them.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She’d wanted to create the perfect home for her family. She’d imagined pets, sunshine, apple orchards, fields of daisies, dreamy Christmases and a cottage so loved it was almost another family member.

She stared gloomily at the damp, feeling betrayed. If the house was a family member she’d be talking to lawyers. She’d had a plan for the day: twenty-two items neatly laid out in her notebook in priority order ready to be crossed out—oh how she loved that part—and so far she hadn’t put a line through a single one. The cottage refused to cooperate.

When she’d first laid eyes on the place on a sunny day in June, it had been love at first sight. She’d told herself that if only they could live here, she’d never complain about anything again.

Be careful what you wish for.

This was all her fault.

The cottage had been outside their budget, and Seb had been resistant to the idea of stretching themselves financially, but she’d persuaded him that they could make it work. A few sacrifices would be nothing compared to the benefits. They’d spend Sundays exploring the leafy lanes and open fields. Holly could go to the village school and have friends back to play in the pretty garden. She’d be part of the local community. Maybe they’d even get a puppy.

Turned out there was already enough local wildlife living in the place without adding to it, and as for the local community—

Her phone buzzed, and she checked the number and groaned. Her finger hovered. Reject the call, reject the call…

Good manners prevailed.

Alison! How lovely to hear from you.” She flinched as another drop of icy water hit her head. “Yes, I know I promised to call, but— Will I be at the village book group this week?” Say no, Christy. Say that you loathe the books they choose, feel patronized by the people and cant bear to spend another evening sitting in a drafty church hall. “Yes. I’ll be there. Looking forward to it.” Each lie eroded her self-esteem a little more. But she had to live in this place. The locals were already suspicious of her. If she upset the village matriarch, maybe the local store would refuse to sell her bread and milk. “Food? Yes, you can rely on me for a quiche… Vegetarian? No problem.”

She ended the call and closed her eyes.

“You are pathetic, Christy. Pathetic.”

She had a feeling that the only way she was ever going to extricate herself from the torture of the local book group and the crushing boredom of the village fundraising committee was to move house. And maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.

If headlines were to be believed, everyone wanted to move from the city to the country. If they put the place on the market in spring or summer, people would fall in love with the idea of living in this fairy-tale cottage, as she had. They wouldn’t discover the truth until they had the key in their hands.

“Mummy!” A shout came from the kitchen.

“Coming!” Christy pointed a finger at the ceiling. “Stay. If you fall in this close to Christmas, that’s it. I’m leaving you.” And now she was losing it, talking to a house as if it was a person with a grudge against her.

She closed the door behind her and mentally composed a sales pitch.

Beautiful country cottage for sale. Would suit a draft loving family with an interest in local wildlife (mice, bats, rats and the occasional squirrel) and money to burn. Must enjoy boring books and judgmental locals.

“Mummy!” The shout was louder this time, and Christy hurried back to the kitchen. “Oh my— Holly, what have you done?”

“I’ve done you a painting.” Holly flourished the paper with pride, and Christy gave a weak smile.

“Most of it seems to be in your hair and on your face.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I know.” There were days when she wondered if Holly was really her child. At the same age, she’d loved wearing dresses and staying clean. Holly was never happier than when she was climbing a tree or digging in the dirt for worms.

“How many sleeps until Christmas?” Paintbrush still in hand, Holly bounced in her chair, scattering blobs of color across the surface of the table. “Can we go to Lapland today?”

“Not today. Seven sleeps until we travel. Fourteen sleeps until Christmas.” Christy reached for a cloth and wiped up the mess. Outside rain lashed at the window. Their little garden, so pretty in the summer months, had turned into a droopy mess. “Don’t wave the brush, honey.”

She checked the forecast on her phone, her spirits plummeting when she saw the amount of rain in her future. It was impossible not to anticipate the next disaster the cottage would throw at her. Yet another leak. More damp.

“I want to go to Lapland. I want to see the snow and lights.”

Christy wanted that, too. Christmas here should have been romantic and gorgeously festive, but no matter how many decorations she added to the tree, or how many fairy lights she hung, it didn’t change the fact that all she wanted to do with the cottage right now was escape from it. Lapland would give them a Christmas to remember, which was why she’d delved into precious savings to pay for it.

“Snow will be fun.”

Christy was excited about more than snow. She was finally going to meet her mystery aunt. Her only living relative. Robyn and her husband owned an upmarket retreat for intrepid travelers. The Snow Spa. How cool was that?

The thought made her smile. Very cool, literally.

And visiting her rebel aunt could probably be described as intrepid.

Part of her felt disloyal, as if she was betraying her mother’s memory by reaching out to Robyn. But that was ridiculous. She was an adult. Her mother was gone. This was Christy’s decision.

What exactly had her aunt done to cause such a major falling out? Christy didn’t know, but she felt a pang of empathy. Living up to her mother’s impossibly high standards wasn’t easy, as she knew only too well.

Youre pregnant, Christy? Youve only known the man for a matter of weeks! How could you be so careless? This is the worst mistake you have ever made.

Of course her mother had come around eventually once she’d met her granddaughter, but that faint cloud of disappointment had always hovered.

“Six o’clock. Time for your bath.” She gently removed the brush from her daughter’s grip. Holly was the best thing that had happened to her, not the worst. Unplanned did not mean unwanted. And she couldn’t, wouldn’t, think of her as a mistake.

“Will Santa be there? Can we see him?”

“I hope so. We’re going to try.” She wasn’t exactly sure whether that type of commercial experience was available near her aunt’s home. Was Santa interested in the Snow Spa? Did he indulge in the occasional cold plunge? Sauna? Either way, she knew Holly would have a wonderful time. She’d taken a look at the website for her aunt’s business, and the forest cabins looked idyllic. “Santa has a busy job.”

“Like Daddy.”

“Like Daddy.” Christy checked the time. Seb had messaged her to say he’d be late home. It was the third time that week. Four times the week before.

When Christy had pictured their life in the country, she’d assumed Seb would continue to work remotely, but changes in his office meant he was no longer able to work from home. He was more stressed than usual, and Christy couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

Did he hate the cottage? Hate living in the country?

Lately she’d been waking up in the night wondering if this whole thing had been a mistake. Living here didn’t feel the way she’d thought it would feel.

It wasn’t just the cottage, or the money. She was lonely, although that wasn’t something she’d admitted to anyone. After trying so hard to persuade Seb to move here, how could she admit that she missed busy London streets and coffee shops? She missed bustle and noise and the undemanding company of strangers. She missed living in a warm apartment.

The cottage had lived up to the dream at the beginning, but then they’d experienced their first winter. After a heavy rainstorm it became clear that the roof needed replacing. The boiler had stuttered to a halt, and there was damp in one corner of the kitchen. They had spent the festive season shivering and trying hard to be upbeat for Holly’s sake. It had been an exhausting experience, which was another reason Christy had booked Lapland. She didn’t want another Christmas like the last one.

She sighed and finished straightening the kitchen.

She’d made a choice, and now she had to live with it.

Where was Seb? How was she supposed to produce a delicious meal when she had no idea what time he was arriving home? It was a planning nightmare.

Oblivious to her mother’s anxiety, Holly rubbed her face, spreading paint. “Santa has help from the elves.”

“He does.” She needed help from the elves, preferably ones with building experience who could fix a leaking roof.

She moved her laptop from the kitchen so that she could lay the table for dinner.

As a freelance graphic designer she could work from anywhere, and she’d spent the morning working on a project for a client, keeping half an eye on her daughter and half on her work. As a result the house reflected the joyous mess of a free-range child. She felt the pressure squeeze. She could hear her mother’s voice in her head, even though she’d been gone for more than two years. One toy at a time. You need to be stricter with her, Christy. Teach her to respect rules. Shes a wild one.

Christy felt a rush of protectiveness. Her daughter was bold, inquisitive and adventurous, and she didn’t want to crush that. She admired, and occasionally envied, her daughter. Had she ever been that fearless?

But she knew that what had really worried her mother was Holly’s resemblance to Robyn.

All her life her Aunt Robyn had been held over her as a warning of what could happen if discipline was not enforced.

Christy had never been sure what Robyn had done, and whenever she’d asked, her mother’s response had either been Dont mention that name in this house or You dont want to know.

Did Christy want to know? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that it felt wrong having a family member alive and not at least making an effort to be in touch.

Even if she didn’t feel a bond with her aunt, she’d have ten whole days where she wouldn’t have to think about her leaky cottage. Ten whole days of quality time with her family. And Alix, of course. The thought of spending time with her oldest friend lifted her spirits. Alix was the sister she’d never had. It was weird to think they’d spent more Christmases together than she had with Seb and Holly.

“I’ve painted a forest for you.” Deprived of a brush, Holly splotched green paint onto the paper with her finger.

“It’s beautiful.” She scooped her daughter up, carried her to the sink and washed the paint from her hands before the forest transferred itself to her kitchen walls. “Show me Lapland on the map.”

Holly wriggled from her arms, sprinted across the room and paused in front of the map that Seb had stuck to the wall, a look of concentration on her face.

Christy took advantage of the moment to quickly load the dishwasher.

“Can you find it?”

“It’s here. All along the top. The Arctic.” Holly rose onto her toes and slid her paint-stained finger across the map. “But we’re staying…here.” She stabbed her finger into the north of Sweden and gave her mother an excited smile.

She had her father’s blue eyes and long eyelashes. It was, as Christy had discovered within minutes of meeting him, a killer combination. She’d fallen hard, as had plenty of women before her, if his reputation was to be believed.

But she was the one he’d married.

Pride, love, delight—Christy felt all those things circle through her as she watched her daughter.

She regretted nothing. She wouldn’t put the clock back. She wouldn’t change a thing. Except the cottage. She’d change that in a New York minute, as Alix would say.

No sooner had she thought about her friend than the phone rang and her name popped up on the screen.

“Alix!”

Holly immediately reached for the phone. “Aunty Alix!”

Technically Alix wasn’t an aunt, but as she and Christy were as close as sisters, it had seemed an appropriate title.

“I need to talk to her first.” Christy held the phone out of reach. “You can say hello when I’ve finished.” She scooped Holly up with her free arm and sat her back down at the table. As Seb was going to be late she had time to chat with her friend before straightening the house. “How’s New York?”

“Cold.” Alix’s voice was clear and strong. “It’s rare to have snow in December, but everything about the weather is messed up at the moment.”

Christy thought about the leak in the bathroom. “Tell me about it.”

“Is this a good time to talk? Am I disturbing you?”

“No, it’s great to hear your voice. You haven’t called in a while.” Should she confess that she missed the days when they’d messaged each other constantly? No, that would be unfair. Alix was busy building a career. Christy pictured her now in Manhattan, dark hair pulled back, tailored dress, heels that would make most women wince to look at them, let alone wear. “I’m sure you’ve been really busy.”

“That’s me. Busy, busy. Work is crazy.”

“I envy you your glamorous life.” Christy carried on clearing up with one hand, her phone in the other.

“Are you kidding? I envy you your idyllic country cottage.”

Idyllic? Christy shivered and snuggled deeper into her sweater.

She resisted the temptation to confess the doubts she was having. She wasn’t ready to tell anyone that, not even Alix. Not after she’d made such a fuss about living here.

“When is your event, and what are you wearing?”

“Event is tonight, and I don’t know what I’m wearing. Something black and serious. It’s work, right?” She broke off, and Christy heard the sound of car horns in the background. “It’s an awards dinner.”

“Exactly. Work, but in posh clothing. I probably should have asked your advice. You’re the stylish one.”

Stylish? These days she chose her clothes for warmth and durability and tried not to think about all the dresses and shoes she no longer had a use for. Christy glanced down at her black yoga pants and noticed a small blob of paint. How had that happened? She was always so careful. “Don’t wear black. It’s boring, and not at all you.”

“Good point. Maybe I’ll wear fancy dress. Talking of which, we have a fabulous range right now. Does my favorite four-year-old need anything new? There’s a great unicorn costume.”

“You already sent her that.” Christy switched on the fairy lights in the kitchen. Since she’d discovered that the soft glow from the twinkly lights disguised the damp patches on the walls, she’d strung them everywhere. Holly assumed they were Christmas decorations, and Christy was fine with that but she’d already decided they wouldn’t be coming down in January. If her future had to be filled with thick sweaters and damp socks, it was also going to be filled with fairy lights. “There aren’t enough days in the week for her to wear what you’re sending. Where are you now?”

“On my way to a meeting. Traffic on Fifth is a nightmare.”

Traffic on Fifth. People. Life. Atmosphere. “You sound like a local.”

“This is my third trip in eight weeks. I’m starting to feel that way.”

Christy cleared up paints and tipped the water away. She wasn’t envious; she really wasn’t. She enjoyed her balance of work and motherhood, even if she did sometimes feel as if she compromised on both elements. This was the life she’d chosen, although it would have been nice to have her husband home and a house that didn’t leak. “Still makes me smile, thinking of you working for a global toy company.”

“Why? Because I’m single and don’t have kids? This is a business, Christy. A cold, ruthless business. We might be selling toys, but there is nothing warm and fuzzy about this job. And I know more about toys than anyone. I know which toys are likely to make a child smile for five minutes or five days. I know which toys are likely to break before the end of the day, which toys might persuade you it’s worth studying harder for exams, and which toy is so awesome it might even make a child forget that their parents don’t want them around—” There was a moment of silence. “Did I really just say that? Don’t read too much into it. Jet lag is making me maudlin. Or maybe it’s this time of year. You know how messed up I am about Christmas.” Alix’s light tone covered layers of emotion and memories. “My point is I have plenty of personal experience of toys. Toys are currency, and no one knows their value better than I do.”

“Sometimes they’re a gesture of love.” Christy felt a surge of compassion. “Have you heard from your parents?”

“No, thank goodness. It’s not as if I’d want to spend Christmas with either of them, anyway. Can you imagine it? Kill me now.”

Christy stowed the paints and brushes in a box, grateful for the love her parents had shown her and the example they’d set. She’d modeled her own family life on theirs, carrying across the routines and traditions from her own childhood.

She thought back to the nights Alix had stayed over at her house. There had been a lot of nights and lots of childhood confessions. My parents dont want me around. They never wanted me.

Christy pushed the art box into the cupboard. Her home might leak, but her daughter knew she was loved. “Remember all those times my mother told us off for talking until the early hours?”

“And for making hot chocolate at two in the morning.”

“And dropping biscuit crumbs in the bed.”

Christy leaned against the cupboard, her mind in the past. “We were always making plans. And look at us.”

Alix gave a quick laugh. “I wanted to climb the corporate ladder, and you wanted a husband, a child and a cottage in the country. Looks like we both got what we wanted.”

Christy stared at the rain hammering the window. “Yes.” But what if what you’d wanted didn’t turn out so great after all? What then? “Are you happy with your life?”

“Of course. What sort of a question is that?”

“You don’t ever feel lonely?”

“Are you kidding? I’m with people all day, and even when I’m not with them physically, they’re calling me.”

Christy waited for Alix to bounce the question back to her, but she didn’t.

“You don’t regret anything?”

“What would I regret? Are you asking me if I want to get married, have children and move to the country? We both know that’s not for me. I don’t want the responsibility. I mean, get it wrong and a child is messed up forever. If you need evidence for that, look at me.”

Christy felt an ache in her chest. “You’re not messed up. And you wouldn’t get it wrong.”

“Ah, but you don’t know that. Anyway, I love being in the fast lane. I love the whole crazy rush of it.” And Alix was moving so quickly everything around her was a blur, including Christy.

There were things she wanted to say but didn’t feel able to.

Why was it suddenly so hard to share her innermost secrets with her friend?

“I keep telling you that adrenaline isn’t one of the main food groups.”

“It’s my favorite type of fuel, except possibly for chocolate. By the way, did I mention that the singing reindeer with a glow-in-the-dark nose that I sent our girl is going to be the toy for Christmas? She’ll be the most popular child in the village.”

Toys are currency.

Christy poured Holly a cup of milk. “I’ve hidden it away ready for you-know-when.”

Holly’s head whipped round. “Are you talking about Christmas?”

Alix laughed. “I heard that. She’s so smart. Just give it to her. I’ve bought her something else for the big day. It’s a junior science kit, not even launched yet. She’s going to love it. I tell you, that girl is going to save the world.”

“Alix, she’s not even five years old. You have to stop buying her things.”

“Why? I want every one of her Christmases to be perfect. She is the most important person in my life, apart from you of course, and I assume you don’t want a reindeer with a glow-in-the-dark nose. Who else am I going to send toys to? I should go. I have to call Tokyo.”

Tokyo.

Christy felt a pang of envy. So far today she’d called the plumber and the dentist. She wouldn’t even know how to call Tokyo. “Isn’t it the middle of the night there?”

“Yes. But business never sleeps.”

“Right. Well, promise me you won’t wear boring black to your glittering awards dinner tonight.” She picked up a cleaning cloth and wandered into the hallway.

“That’s all I packed.”

Christy swiped her cloth over the table. “You’re on Fifth Avenue, Alix. Find something glamorous.” It had been so long since she’d bought something new to wear. What was the point? Occasionally she and Seb booked a babysitter and walked to the local pub, but it wasn’t like their previous apartment where they were five steps from every type of restaurant. And lately he’d been too tired to go out. And then there was the money. She’d given up her job in an agency when Holly was born, and now specialized in building websites for small businesses. It was more flexible and less demanding. It also paid less.

Alix was still talking. “Did you hear any more from your aunt? You didn’t discover the deep, dark family secret?”

“No.” Christy wandered into Seb’s study so that Holly couldn’t listen in. “I decided that conversation was better had in person.” She’d rather avoid it altogether, but there wasn’t much hope of that. What if it was something truly awful? What if it was difficult to hear? She removed a dead plant from his desk and glanced out the window into the darkness. Rain slid down the windows. “The weather is horrible here. I hope Seb will be okay. The drive back from the train station will be bad.”

“He isn’t home?”

“Working late.” The moment she said it, she wished she hadn’t. Alix missed nothing.

There was a pause and then the predictable question. “Is everything okay?”

“Of course.” There had been a time when Christy had shared everything with Alix, but that had changed the day she’d married Seb. It was the only time in their long friendship that she and Alix had been on opposite sides of an argument.

Dont do it, Christy. Dont marry him. How well do you really know him? Hes a player. Not the kind of guy who shares your dream of a life in the countryside with two kids and a dog. Youre making a mistake. It doesnt matter that youre pregnant.

Christy thought about that awful moment more often than she should. It wasn’t even as if they’d fought over it. Shaking and upset, she’d simply told Alix that she was wrong and that she was happy with her decision. She’d told herself that Alix had been looking out for her, that her concern had been driven by her own less-than-perfect home life, but the words had settled deep in her, like scar tissue.

They hadn’t talked about it again. When Alix had anxiously contacted her after the wedding to check things were okay between them, Christy had reassured her that of course everything was fine. What was the point of resurrecting the conversation? What would that achieve? Nothing. It wasn’t as if they could undo what was done. Better to move on.

But it hadn’t been as easy to move on as she’d hoped. The words clanged along with her, like cans attached to the car of newlyweds.

When Alix came to stay, she found herself overdoing the happy-family routine. She made sure that everything was perfect and her smile huge. She was extra demonstrative toward Seb. Look how happy we are. Look how wrong you were.

She swiped her cloth over Seb’s desk and the top of his laptop, wishing she could forget that entire verbal exchange. When she was younger it had never occurred to her that her friendship with Alix would one day change. When they’d lain in the dark in her bedroom, talking into the night about everything from boys to babies, she’d thought to herself Its always going to be this way. The discovery that an adult friendship came with complications had been an uncomfortable shock.

She picked up the wedding photo that Seb kept on his desk.

Staring at that photo, Christy felt a twinge of sadness. Unlike Holly, who mostly dreamed of being a scientist or an explorer, Christy had dreamed of weddings when she was little. Her wedding was meant to be the happiest day of her life but, as so often happened, it hadn’t turned out the way she’d planned.

There she was, wearing a dress that had skimmed her growing bump, and there was Alix with Zac, Seb’s closest friend, posing either side of them like bookends, each wearing the obligatory smile for the camera.

It was Zac who had intervened when Alix had tried to stop the wedding. He’d propelled her from the room, less than impressed by her freely expressed conviction that the whole thing was a mistake.

What had happened when the two of them were alone together? Neither of them had spoken about it, but whatever it was had made Alix determined never to cross paths with Zac again.

Christy reached into the drawer for the screen cleaner and flipped open Seb’s laptop.

“Have fun tonight. Send photos. Can’t wait to see you next week.” Their friendship might have changed, but it was still strong. They still had plenty of ways they could connect. They had no need to step into that single no-go area.

Christy wiped the screen with the cloth, and it blazed to life. Seb must have forgotten to turn it off. She glanced at it idly, and then with more focus.

Her heart took off. She barely heard Alix’s voice.

“Christy? Are you still there?”

She sat down hard on the office chair. “Yes.” Her hand shook so badly she almost dropped the phone.

Had she misunderstood the email?

She read it again, trying to stay calm.

You’re the best, Mandy. What would I do without you?

I’ll meet you in Covent Garden at six p.m.

If there’s a problem, call my mobile. Don’t call me at home.

She felt as if someone had punched the air from her lungs.

Mandy? Who was Mandy? It could be innocent, but if so, why wouldn’t he want the woman to call him at home? And why wouldn’t he just tell her? Why lie? What was he keeping from her?

He’d told her he was working late, but here was the evidence that he wasn’t. He was meeting another woman in Covent Garden and didn’t want her to know.

She imagined them laughing together in a trendy bar. Smiling at each other in a restaurant.

Panic bloomed. There had to be an explanation. He wouldn’t do this to her.

Would he? She kept hearing Alix’s voice in her head. How well do you really know him?

Her hands and legs were shaking. What now?

She couldn’t admit she’d been looking at his laptop. It was a betrayal of trust. On the other hand he was betraying her trust, wasn’t he? She hadn’t even had to click to see the email. He hadn’t tried to hide it or delete it.

Her chest felt tight. What did this mean? Was he unhappy? Was this her fault for making them move so far out of London? She should ask him. But she didn’t want to ask him. She didn’t want this to be happening,

“Christy?”

She’d forgotten Alix was on the phone. She needed to get rid of her. Even if she could talk about it with her friend, which she couldn’t, Alix’s way of dealing with things was different from hers. For a start, Alix didn’t avoid difficult situations. If she wanted to know something, she asked. If someone annoyed her, she said, You annoyed me. Which was why, before the wedding, she’d said, Youre making a mistake. Someone else might have said, Do you think… or Is it possible that But not Alix.

Christy handled things differently.

“Sorry, you rang in the busy hour.” She managed to inject just the right amount of fake breeziness into her voice. “I’m cleaning up more paint than you’ve seen in your life. Have fun at your event. Talk soon.”

She ended the call and walked blindly back into the kitchen, barely hearing Holly when she protested that she’d wanted to talk to Aunty Alix.

She had to keep busy. Yes, that was the answer.

She switched on the oven to reheat the casserole she’d made earlier. Then she finished stacking the dishwasher. Her hands were shaking so badly one of the plates slipped from her fingers and crashed on the floor, scattering shards of china across the tiles.

Holly screamed and jumped on the chair.

Christy found herself thinking that at least clearing up the mess gave her something to do. Another job to fill those yawning gaps where stress and anxiety tried to take hold.

“It’s okay. Stay calm. Don’t move. I’ll fix this.” She was talking to herself as much as her daughter.

She took a breath and tipped the broken pieces of china into the bin.

“Mummy? Why are you crying?”

Was she crying? She pressed her palm to her cheek and felt dampness. She was crying. “Mummy’s a little sniffy, that’s all.” She blew her nose. “Maybe I’m getting a cold.”

Holly scrambled from the chair and wrapped her arms around Christy’s legs. “Kisses mend everything.”

“That’s right, they do.” If only that was all it took. She scooped up her daughter and hugged her tightly.

“It will soon be Christmas.”

Christmas. Family time.

Emotion clogged her throat and swelled in her chest. She couldn’t confront Seb before Christmas. No way. It would be better to pretend everything was normal. She could do that. She was used to doing that.

“Time for bed.” She scooped Holly into her arms. “You’re getting too big to carry.”

“I want to wait for Daddy. I want Daddy to kiss me good-night.”

“Daddy is going to be late tonight.” She carried Holly upstairs, operating on automatic.

“Will we see a reindeer in Lapland?”

“I’m sure we’ll see a reindeer.” She refused to allow emotion to intrude on this time with her child, but the effort required was so great that, by the time she’d finished bath time and read two stories, she was almost ready for bed herself.

She switched on the night-light that sent a blue and green glow swirling across the ceiling.

When they’d first moved in, Christy had suggested a princess bedroom like the one she’d had as a child, but Holly was fascinated by snow and ice and wanted her bedroom to look like a polar research station. When I grow up Im going to be a scientist like Uncle Zac. It had taken a while to agree a design they could build themselves, but Seb and Zac had finally transformed the room the month before. As the men worked on the structure, Christy had painted snowfields and mountains on the wall opposite the bed and tried not to be disappointed as her dream of floaty canopies, fairy lights and plenty of soft pink had been supplanted by steel gray for the so-called laboratory area and sleeping shelf.

It wasn’t what she would have chosen herself, but even she had to admit it was cozy.

She kissed her daughter, left the bedroom door ajar and headed downstairs.

The sick feeling had become a knot of tension.

She laid the table for dinner. Lit candles, then blew them out when there was still no sign of him an hour later. She turned off the oven.

She’d made the casserole while Holly had been watching half an hour of TV.

Her own mother had refused to have a television in the house. Christy’s childhood had been a roundabout of carefully curated learning. Violin lessons, piano lessons, ballet classes, riding lessons, art appreciation and Mandarin lessons. Her mother had insisted that every moment of her time should be spent productively. Flopping on the sofa was frowned upon, unless it was done with a book in hand. Tell me about the book, Christy. Lets discuss it.

Christy eyed the slim book that had been taking up space on the side table for weeks. The cover reminded her that it had won a major literary award, but each time Christy sat down to read it she never made it past the second chapter. She already knew the main character died. The people were horrible, and they made horrible choices, which meant the ending could only be one thing: horrible. Why was it that books worthy of the book group were always depressing? What was good about a book that left you feeling miserable? She couldn’t bring herself to read it, which meant she’d have to read some reviews on the internet if she had any hope of sounding intelligent and engaged. What would I have done differently if Id been in the same situation? Everything!

She glanced out the window into the darkness.

Still no Seb.

By the time she finally heard the sound of his car in the drive, the casserole was cold and congealed.

She smoothed her hair, closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath.

She’d pretend nothing was wrong. It would be fine. And maybe she was imagining things anyway, and the whole thing would go away. There was probably a simple explanation.

By the time he opened the front door she was ready and waiting. She even managed a smile.

“You’re so late. I was worried. Did your meetings overrun? You must be exhausted.” She hovered, heart aching, mind racing.

“Yes. Sorry.” He hung up his coat. Kissed her briefly. “Freezing out there.”

“Yes. They’re saying it might even snow. Can you believe that?”

Were they really talking about the weather? What had happened to them?

Her mood plummeted even further.

Seb followed her into the kitchen, forgot to duck and smacked his head on the low doorway.

“Damn it. This house hates me. Why didn’t the guy who built it make the doors higher?” He rubbed his forehead and glared at the doorway of the kitchen.

“They probably weren’t as tall as you.” For once it felt as if she and the cottage were on the same side. She felt hurt, betrayed and more than a little angry with him for proving Alix right.

“I know I should have called you, but—”

“I don’t expect you to call. I know how busy you are.” She wanted to move away from the subject. “Do you want a drink? Wine?”

He hesitated. “Is there beer?”

“Beer? I don’t—yes, I think so—” She jerked open the fridge door so violently everything inside rattled. She’d chilled a sauvignon blanc, but he wanted beer. They always drank wine. Why did he suddenly want beer? Was it the influence of another woman? She rummaged past vegetables and two neatly stacked containers of food for Holly and found a bottle of beer left by Zac. “Here.” She thrust it at him and watched as he snapped off the top and drank, not even bothering with a glass.

“Thanks.” He lowered the bottle. “Holly asleep?”

“Yes. She tried to stay awake for you.”

He pulled a face. “I hate missing story time.”

Does Mandy know you have a daughter waiting for you to kiss her goodnight?

“Dinner is spoiled, but there’s soup in the fridge that I can heat up.”

“No need.” He yanked at his tie and undid his top button. “I grabbed something before I jumped on the train. Are you okay? You seem tense.”

“Tense? I’m not tense. I’m fine.” She could hardly breathe. Had he eaten with her? Candles? Laughter? Had they held hands? “There’s cheese in the fridge. Fresh grapes.”

“Nothing, thanks.” He finished the beer and put the bottle down. He was silent for a long moment and then he looked at her. “We need to talk, Christy.”

What? No! No, they didn’t. Not now. Not right before Christmas.

“You must be tired, so I thought maybe we could light a fire and watch a movie, or—”

“Christy.” His voice was sharper. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

And she didn’t want to hear it. Not now. Maybe not ever. She hadn’t decided about that part.

“There’s really no need to—”

“There is a need. I know you hate talking about difficult things, but this can’t be avoided.”

Did she hate talking about difficult things? Yes, she did. But avoidance was a perfectly valid way of coping, and if he knew that was her preference, why then was he forcing her to confront something she’d probably rather ignore?

“Seb—”

“I need to talk. There is something I need to tell you. And you’re not going to like it.”

Her heart punched a hole in her ribs, and her knees turned liquid. She wanted to stop him talking, but obviously he had no intention of doing that, so all she could do was breathe and get through it.

“What?”

He took a deep breath. “I can’t come with you to Lapland. At least, not immediately. Not when we planned.” He stood still, his shoulders tense as he braced himself for her reaction. “There’s a meeting I have to attend on the Tuesday.”

“A…meeting?” That wasn’t what she’d expected him to say. She’d expected a confession about a woman. Bad choices. I made a mistake, but I hope youll forgive me.

“I know you’ll be disappointed. This is your dream trip. And it’s Christmas, and I know how you feel about Christmas.”

He knew how she felt about Christmas, but he was going to ruin it for her, anyway.

“Are you telling me you’re not coming to Lapland?”

“I’m still coming, but a few days later. I’ll change my flight. You go ahead without me.”

Without him? This was a family holiday! A special trip Holly would hopefully remember happily for the rest of her life. How could that happen if her daddy wasnt there? How could it be a family trip without Seb? Which part of that didn’t he understand?

Emotion clogged her throat. “You’re saying you have to work at Christmas.”

“Not over Christmas itself. But at the beginning of our trip, yes. And believe me, I’m no happier about it than you are.”

She didn’t believe him. If he wasn’t happy, why was he doing it?

“What is this meeting? You work with a team. Can’t you delegate?”

“No. I’m the only one who can do this meeting. It’s tough out there, and I don’t have a choice.” He didn’t look at her, and that felt significant. He’d always been good with eye contact. It was one of the many things that had attracted her to him in the first place. He looked at her. He saw her.

But not now. He wasn’t looking at her. He wasn’t coming to Lapland with them. Apparently he had no choice.

There was always a choice.

Work? Did he really expect her to believe that? He was good at his job: that she believed. He’d been promoted several times. But no one was indispensable. And if it was work, then who was Mandy, and why was he lying about meeting her?

Panic froze her ability to think. Alix’s warning kept playing on a loop in her head, and she could no longer switch it off.

How well do you really know him? Hes a player.

Was that true? Had Alix been right?

And what did she do now?

Did she fly to Lapland without him and hope that whatever it was fixed itself in her absence, or did they disappoint Holly, stay home and confront the problem?

Either way, it seemed Christmas was ruined.

Chapter Three

Alix

Was she happy with her life? What sort of a question was that? And why had Christy asked it?

She loved her life. She loved her apartment in London, with its views over the river. She loved the fact that she had her huge, comfy bed all to herself. She didn’t sleep on one side, waiting for someone to fill the other side. She slept in the middle. If she wanted to read in the night, she turned the light on. Her fridge was full of her favorite food, her shelves stocked with her favorite books. Most of all she loved her job—every glorious, challenging, frustrating, stimulating minute of it. Lonely? As if!

Alix stood in front of the mirror in the luxurious hotel bathroom and carefully applied her makeup.

She particularly loved her job right now, when she had a few minutes to reflect on the success of the Christmas advertising campaign she’d spearheaded the year before. She’d even made her boss smile, and that had only happened twice in the whole time she’d been VP of marketing for Dream Toys.

She’d spent the past two days at head office on Fifth Avenue, listening to presentation after presentation, drinking endless cups of bad coffee to keep herself awake. A significant amount of their business was now online, and it was the work of Alix and her team that had helped drive sales steadily upward. What a year they’d had! While many businesses were struggling, theirs was soaring, thanks to careful curating of their range and Alix’s skill at spotting a winner and making it top of the wish list of every child.

Her year had culminated in the launch of the campaign for the holiday season, and that was the reason she was here now, heading to the awards dinner.

Campaign of the Year.

At work they called her the Queen of Christmas. They barreled into her office, asking her questions about the holiday season, seeking her opinion. It made Alix laugh to think they considered her an expert on all things festive. She knew toys, but that was it. Everything she knew about the holiday itself she’d learned from watching and listening. She had no personal experience of a family Christmas. She didn’t know how it felt to gather together as a family to celebrate. Her parents had divorced when she was six, and for a few painful years after that she’d been shuttled between them like an unwanted Christmas gift. If you take her this year, Ill have her next year. She was pretty sure if they could have sent her back for a refund, they would have done it.

Christmas had been a tense time for all until the year they’d both had to travel abroad for work and had asked Christy’s mother to take Alix.

In Christy’s warm, cozy home, she’d experienced her first family Christmas, and the fact that it hadn’t been with her own family didn’t matter. She’d sat under their enormous tree and stared in wonder at the glittering ornaments. She’d helped in the kitchen, eaten at the table, played games and joined them on long winter walks. She’d even had her own stocking: red with a bow and stuffed with thoughtful presents.

Christy’s mother, Elizabeth, had treated her like her own, and only once did Alix overhear her talking about it.

That poor girl. Some people shouldnt have children.

It was the first of many Christmases she’d spent with them. Thanks to that experience, she considered herself an expert on how to create the perfect Christmas for children.

She ignored the slightly hollow feeling inside her and pointed her mascara wand at the mirror.

“You, Alix Carpenter, are a big fake. Let’s hope you’re never found out.”

She felt a wave of exhaustion.

Thank goodness for adrenaline and makeup and the promise of a vacation soon. She had two whole weeks off over Christmas. Two weeks to sleep late, ignore her phone and catch up on TV shows everyone talked about but she never had time to watch. And, most exciting of all, a whole week with Holly and Christy in Lapland.

How many times had they talked about Lapland as children?

It was a dream that had seeped into her work, and the company had recently launched an Arctic range at her suggestion. A remote-controlled wolf, a board game for the whole family that involved racing around Lapland by ski, snowmobile and sled. Meet a reindeer, go back five spaces. A night-light that shone greeny-blue aurora around the room. She’d already sent one to Holly.

Hopefully her trip would provide more inspiration for additions to the new range, but she didn’t mind if it didn’t. This was all about enjoying time with Holly and Christy. Could there be any better way to spend Christmas?

Seb would be there, too, of course, but after a rocky beginning to their relationship, they’d both moved on.

Whatever their differences, they had one big thing in common.

They both loved Christy.

Of all the challenges that friendship could bring, the one Alix hadn’t expected was that her closest friend would marry a man she didn’t like.

Alix frowned. No, it wasn’t that she didn’t like Seb. More that she didn’t trust him. She’d known him vaguely before Christy had met him. He’d frequented the same fashionable bar that she often went to after work, where the crowd was the usual predictable mix of stressed city workers. They’d never been interested in each other, but she’d been aware of his reputation with women, so when he and Christy had been attracted like magnets the first time they’d met, she’d been concerned. Concern had turned to alarm when Christy had announced shortly after that she was pregnant and intended to marry him. What should have been a fun, casual evening had turned into forever.

But if rumor was correct, Seb Sullivan didn’t do forever.

And she’d felt guilty and more than a little responsible because Christy would never have met Seb if it hadn’t been for Alix.

She’d done everything she could to talk her friend out of it, which hadn’t exactly endeared her to Seb or to Christy or to the best man—although that was a whole other story—but at the time that hadn’t mattered. She’d been trying to save her friend from making a terrible mistake. What was friendship if it wasn’t looking out for someone you loved? Being straight about the things that mattered? Christy’s happiness mattered to her, but Christy had decided that happiness had meant marrying Seb.

Fortunately that little blip hadn’t damaged their friendship, and Alix knew nothing ever would. Their bond was unbreakable. It was true that she felt a little squeezed out by Christy’s relationship with Seb, but she had to admit that, so far, the marriage seemed to be working out. Seb was a good father, and he seemed to love Christy. He’d embraced Christy’s dream of moving to a cottage in a small country village. Alix hadn’t been able to imagine Seb spending his weekends going on muddy walks or enjoying a pint in the local pub, but apparently she’d misjudged him, because they’d been in the cottage for eighteen months, and everything seemed to be going well.

Alix had never been happier to be wrong.

Behind her hung the dress she’d bought that afternoon in a half-hour break between meetings. It was silver, high in the neck, and fitted her perfectly. Not black. Not businesslike. But she had to admit that she loved it. It was even a little festive, and if you couldn’t sparkle in Manhattan in December, then when could you?

Sure that Christy would approve, she slid on the dress.

On impulse she snapped a selfie and typed a message to Christy.

She paused before she sent it, weighing up whether she should or not. There had been a time when she never would have asked herself that question. She and Christy had messaged each other multiple times a day in an almost nonstop conversation, but that had changed when Christy had married Seb. Christy’s messages had become less frequent. And that was to be expected, of course. Her friend was married. Busy. But it had made Alix self-conscious about the messages she sent, too. How many was too many? Especially after her phone call. Was she intruding? Unsure, Alix had tried to scale back her contact.

She pressed Send, feeling a little awkward at overthinking something so simple as messaging her friend over a dress. In all other parts of her life, including her work, she was decisive and confident.

Pathetic.

She picked up her purse, took one last glance at herself and headed out the room.

She didn’t care much about the dinner or the ceremony, but she was looking forward to seeing other members of her team. She never forgot that this was a team effort, and she worked with good people.

Lonely? No way.

She was sliding into the car that had been booked for her when she realized Christy hadn’t replied. But with a five-hour time difference, that probably wasn’t surprising. Her friend was probably already deeply asleep.

Remembering their conversation earlier that day, she squashed down the flicker of concern. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, but if that was the case then Christy would have told her. Maybe they didn’t share every single little thing that happened in their lives any more or talk as often as they used to, but they still shared the big things.

She leaned back in her seat, enjoying the moment. Manhattan during the day was fun, interesting and exciting, but at night it was spectacular.

She didn’t quite understand why, but every time she landed in this city she felt as if she’d made it.

She’d survived her ice-cold childhood and built a life for herself. No one knew what lay behind her. No one cared.

Her phone beeped, and she checked it, expecting Christy, and saw a message from her mother.

Alix stared at the message and then rolled her eyes.

Hi, darling, have a great Christmas. Love, Mum.

Fat chance.

She imagined her mother’s assistant tentatively putting her head round the door of Fiona’s chaotic office. A reminder to send a gift to your daughter, Professor Carpenter. Her mother would have been irritated by the interruption.

She was relieved and a little proud that she felt nothing. There had been a time when a message like that would have ruined her day, but she was made of tougher stuff now. She’d worked hard to achieve this level of emotional control. Feelings, strong feelings, were inconvenient at best, painful at worst, and she made a point of avoiding them. It made life so much easier, so much smoother, that frankly she didn’t understand why more people didn’t do it. Only last week she’d had to support her assistant through an emotional crisis when her boyfriend had ended the relationship. Alix had handed her a tissue, given her the rest of the day off and refrained from pointing out that if she stayed single nothing like this would ever happen again.

“We’re here, Ms. Carpenter.” The car purred to a halt outside one of New York’s finest hotels, and a uniformed man stepped forward to open the door.

Alix pushed a bill into his hand and walked into the marble foyer.

A huge Christmas tree reached upward, a stylish pyramid of silver and sparkle. Alix found herself thinking of the decorations Holly liked to hang on the tree. A misshapen reindeer she’d baked in the oven. A silver star with uneven points. In her opinion they held more appeal than the glittering symmetry of the ornaments adorning this tree.

Thinking about it brought a rush of warmth.

She was going to have a brilliant family Christmas, just not with her own family.

Her boss, Miles, was waiting for her, phone in hand.

“You were right about that reindeer.” He showed her the screen. “It’s selling so fast we can’t keep the stores stocked.”

It was typical of him to dive straight into work, and that was fine with her.

They walked together toward their tables in the ballroom, talking numbers and strategy.

The room was filling up fast, and when they finally took their seats and the evening began, Alix finally treated herself to a sip of champagne.

She chatted to her colleagues, keeping the conversation light and neutral. When they asked about her plans for the holidays, she told them she’d be spending it with friends in Lapland.

When one of them asked about her family, she brushed the question aside, deflecting as she always did. It really didn’t bother her that her parents had no wish to spend Christmas with her, but it was hard to convince people of that, so she preferred not to talk about it.

It would have been easy for her to hate Christmas, but thanks to Christy she loved it. Her friend’s generosity was something she never took for granted. Their friendship was the most important thing in the world to her. Now that, she thought as she took another sip of champagne, was the one relationship where she allowed her emotions to be engaged. She loved Christy like a sister, and Christy loved her back. Their lives had been intertwined since childhood, and they knew every little detail about one another. She knew that Christy hated peanut butter and always slept with two pillows. She knew that she preferred baths to showers, that she never went to bed without first applying moisturizer and that she threw her mascara away after exactly three months. (She made a note in her diary.) She knew that Christy would always choose to eat a raw carrot over a bowl of ice cream and that she’d only ever been blind drunk once in her life. (Vodka. Never again.) She knew that Christy’s way of handling a difficult situation was to ignore it and that the last thing she did before she went to bed at night was make a list of all the things she had to do the following day.

And Christy knew her, too. Christy was the only one who knew Alix had lost her virginity to Charlie Harris and that sometimes she liked to sleep with a light on. There was nothing they couldn’t say to each other. It had occurred to her, more than once, that what you needed most to help you navigate childhood and adolescence wasn’t good parents but a great friend. It was the only relationship she’d ever let herself rely on. There were times when she didn’t feel quite as close to Christy as she’d once done, but that was only to be expected given the change in their circumstances. Deep down they had a special bond, and that would never change.

“Wake up, Carpenter.” Miles nudged her. “We won. Get up on that stage, and make a speech.”

She heard the applause, saw images of their campaign flash across the giant screens and walked with the rest of her team to collect the award.

As she returned to her seat, she felt her phone vibrate.

She sneaked a look and saw Christy’s name on the screen.

It was three in the morning in London. Christy was a big believer in the restorative powers of sleep, which was why she never had dark circles around her eyes like Alix. She would never call in the middle of the night unless it was an emergency.

“Excuse me.” With an apologetic smile to her colleague, Alix gracefully wove her way through the tables and out of the hall into the foyer.

She found a quiet area and sat down on a plush sofa next to yet another dazzling Christmas tree. It was like being in a sparkling, festive forest.

“Christy? Is everything okay?” She asked the question even though she knew things couldn’t possibly be okay. “Hello?” For a moment Alix wondered if her friend had ended the call, but then she heard a muffled sound.

“Are you crying?” She sat up straighter. Her friend was more emotional than she was, but she didn’t often cry. “Christy?”

“I’m okay.” Christy sniffed. “Am I disturbing you? Has the award thing finished?”

“Yes. Boring, anyway.” Alix eased her feet out of her shoes and rubbed her sore heels with her fingers. “Tell me why you’re awake at this hour.”

“I need a favor.”

“A favor?” Her heart leaped. It had been a long time since Christy had asked for her help with anything. And she hadn’t anticipated how hard that would be to handle. She’d gone from being at the center of Christy’s life to the margins. “What favor? Name it.” No matter what you need, Im here for you.

There was a pause, as if Christy was struggling to get the words out. “I need you to take Holly to Lapland.”

“We are taking Holly to Lapland.”

“I mean you, not me. I can’t go right away.”

“I— What?” Of all the things she’d anticipated being asked, that wouldn’t have made the list. “But this is the dream trip. The perfect Christmas. You’ve been planning it for ages.”

“I know. I’ll still be joining you. Just a few days later, that’s all. It’s fine.” The waver in her voice suggested differently. “But I need you to look after Holly.”

Alix stared at the enormous Christmas tree in front of her, a suspicion forming. It was all very well being wanted and needed, but…

“What’s happened? And where’s Seb in all this?”

“He has a meeting he has to attend. A work thing.” Christy stumbled over the words. “Disappointing, obviously, but one of those things. We’ll fly out together a few days later and join you.”

Work? Who blew off a long-planned trip to Lapland at Christmas to work?

She had to stop asking herself these questions. What did she know about relationships, anyway?

Alix watched as a glamorous woman swept through the lobby on the arm of a good-looking man. He paused to kiss her, and she laughed and kissed him back, oblivious as to who might be watching.

Alix looked away.

If Christy had been there, she would have rolled her eyes at her friend. Youre so unromantic, Alix.

Maybe she was, but being unromantic had protected her from emotional disaster. She’d never suffered what other people called a broken heart. In fact, the last man she’d spent time with had questioned whether she even had a heart, which she thought was a little harsh. Dating, in her opinion, wasn’t so different from recruitment. You drew up a job description and then looked for someone who was a good fit. Romance and passion were unpredictable and undefinable. Also unreliable. She wasn’t interested, but she knew Christy was. Christy was the original romantic, and Seb had to know that by now. She frowned. Did he know that? Of course, he couldn’t possibly know Christy as well as she did; after all, she’d had a twenty-year head start, but surely he knew that basic detail?

A colleague approached, and she waved them away, indicating that she needed privacy. “It’s Christmas. Did he try telling his boss he’s taking his daughter on a dream trip to Lapland?” What boss would override that? “Couldn’t he say no?”

“Now you’re being judgy.”

Alix closed her eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be.”

“He has to stay, so I’m going to stay with him. It will be good to have some adult time on our own, without Holly.”

But Christy had never left Holly for more than a few hours before.

There was something her friend wasn’t telling her. What? And, more importantly, why? Maybe they didn’t spend as much time talking as they used to, but they didn’t have secrets. Did they?

“Talk to me, Christy. What’s wrong really? Tell me.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. And I have told you.”

Alix felt a flicker of unease. There was only one reason she could think of that Christy wouldn’t be straight with her. Her marriage. Could she ask? No, definitely not. Not after the last time. Christy had forgiven her for interfering that time, but she might not do so again.

“Tell me how I can help.” Talk to me. Im your best friend.

Maybe Christy was waiting to see her in person to confide in her. Some things weren’t easy to talk about over the phone.

“Just say you’ll take Holly for me. You were going anyway, so the only change for you is that you’ll have sole charge of her.”

Sole charge?

The focus of Alix’s anxiety shifted. She adored Holly. As far as Alix was concerned, she was an extension of Christy. She couldn’t love the child more if she was her own. But look after her alone? That didn’t fit within her skill set. What if she cried? Missed her parents? What if she was unhappy and Alex messed it up? What if it turned into a Christmas she’d never forget for all the wrong reasons?

Christy might have forgiven Alix’s frankness before the wedding, but she definitely wouldn’t forgive anything happening to her child.

“We both know I’m not the best person for this.”

“You’re the perfect person. She loves you.”

But what would happen to that love if Alix mishandled the situation? “What if she has a horrible time?”

“I’m asking you to take her to a winter wonderland for a few days, not raise her alone.”

“But I don’t know how to do the whole cozy-family-Christmas thing. That’s your domain. I just join in.” Alix ran her hand over the back of her neck. It was cold outside. How could it be so hot in this building? “This isn’t exactly babysitting for an evening. There’s the journey, for a start. And we’d be a long way from you.” The more she thought about it, the more the idea terrified her. “What if Holly misses you and has a tantrum?”

“She hasn’t had a tantrum since she was two, and hardly ever then. She’s even-tempered. You know that.”

“But you know how adventurous she is. She has no concept of danger. What if she climbs on something while I’m not looking and has an accident?”

“She won’t because you’ll be looking.”

She’d have to keep her eyes glued to the child.

“What if she has a bad dream or something?”

“You’ll be there.”

“But she’d want you.” Her heat was hammering against her chest. “There wouldn’t be any backup.”

“You don’t need backup.”

Yes, she did. She couldn’t do this. She had to say no, for Holly’s sake. “Christy—”

“She won’t be any trouble.”

“Are you kidding? Your daughter can get into trouble in an empty room.”

“True, but you know that, so you’ll be watching her. She’ll be thrilled to have some girl time with you, and I’ll join you a few days later. Please, Alix. I know I’m taking advantage of our friendship, but there’s no one else I can ask.”

Alix wanted their friendship to be about confidences and fun conversation. Shopping trips and the occasional night out (with wine). She didn’t want to have sole responsibility for a child.

Say no, say no, say no.

“All right.” She’d get through it somehow. If Holly cried, she’d use toys as a bribe. How many could she cram into her baggage? “If you’re sure.”

“You’re the best.”

“Better hold the praise until I return her alive and phobia-free.” Maybe she should buy a book on childcare. “What about Aunt Black Sheep? Have you told her?”

“Not yet. I wanted to check you’re okay with the plan first.”

She was far from okay, but what choice did she have?

Alix ran the tips of her fingers over the silver waterfall of her dress.

She’d need a strategy, with every scenario mapped out. As well as toys, she’d have her laptop so they could watch movies. She knew her friend rarely resorted to that, but she wasn’t Christy. She didn’t want Holly looking back on this as the worst Christmas ever. She didn’t want to return her to her mother emotionally scarred.

She felt a gnawing anxiety. Their friendship had never required her to do something this challenging.

“What do you want me to do?”

“You’re still flying back to London at the weekend? Come over to the house as planned next week. That way you can both travel together.”

“She’s never been on a plane before.” What if she lost Holly in the airport? What if she handed her passport over and turned to find the little girl gone? What if Holly had a meltdown and decided she never wanted to fly anywhere again?

“Will you stop worrying? This whole trip is a dream come true for her.”

And that, Alix thought, was the problem.

She wasn’t the right person to be in charge of a child’s dreams. She was worried for Holly, but she was also worried for herself and her friend.

Christy had finally asked for her help with something. What if she got it wrong?

What would that mean for their friendship?

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