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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Christmas Angels

A Novel

Nancy Naigle

St. Martin's Griffin

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Chapter One


Everything happens according to the timing of our life, and no two lives are the same.

Her grandfather’s words echoed in her mind the way they still did so often, even though he’d been a long time gone. Liz Westmoreland had lived her whole life by that philosophy. If there was one thing Pop had taught her, it was not to rush through life or try to force an order to it.

“Things happen when they are supposed to,” Pop would remind her when she’d complain about the summer going too fast, or a fishing trip not coming soon enough. It seemed as if her whole childhood had been a lesson in patience. No matter if it was a burnt batch of snickerdoodles or heartbreak, Pop offered the same advice, and Gram echoed the sentiment. They were a united front. Always. If Liz ever decided to consider marriage again, it would only be for the promise of a relationship like theirs had been.

Patience as a life skill had helped Liz in business too, earning her the reputation of one of the best project managers at PROEM Service Group, where she was responsible for launching store openings for the finest chains around the world. Patience and timing were demanded of her daily and she excelled at both. Good thing too, because McKinley was a new client and their project was in the ditch when PROEM asked her to step in and work her magic to get them back on budget and open on time. With the help of handpicked short-term contractors, she’d recouped the overrun, and the store opened on time exactly four weeks ago today. The postproduction period was over and she was ready to submit the final paperwork showing that not only was the job complete, but they had exceeded all stated goals.

It’s a wrap.

She smiled with satisfaction as she raised her finger above the keyboard, then hit enter to send the email with the final documents closing out the project. For a moment, her eyes hung on the email her boss, Peggy, had printed and placed on her desk this morning. McKinley was so happy with the outcome that they’d already booked two more new store openings with them. In Peggy’s handwriting, “Great job. Thank you!” was scribbled across the bottom.

She twisted a white-gold sand-dollar pendant between her fingers. She’d splurged on the necklace as a memento of the project at the grand opening. Spending time on the beautiful South Carolina coast working on the McKinley store had given her a whole new appreciation for the beach.

Out the window it was a gray and rainy day. The whole state of North Carolina was getting soaked today. Traffic stacked up on the interstate. No ocean here, just a sea of cars crawling through the rain. She hadn’t missed the traffic one bit.

Summer was just a hazy memory under the autumnal foliage that now glistened beneath the weight of raindrops. The colorful leaves proved that time had continued to move on while she was heads down on the McKinley project.

She clicked on the bookmarks tab on her computer and brought up the latest bed-and-breakfasts for sale in the southeast. Perusing those pretty places was her favorite mind cleanse. A few minutes imagining that her only job was to host people in a lovely inn somewhere in the mountains was enough to offset hours of untangling project snafus and budget overruns.

For as long as she could remember, Liz had dreamed of following in her grandparents’ footsteps running their inn, Angel’s Rest, but she’d landed here instead. Not that she was complaining. She’d earned a corner office and a six-figure salary, and since she had barely a minute to spare she’d been able to put a lot of money aside to someday follow that dream. Not an awful problem to have, but some days she wasn’t even sure how she might find the time for someday.

A double knock at her door brought her back from the daydream.

“Thanks for the loan.” Her friend Dan stood in the doorway about to flip the key fob to her Range Rover across the room.

She jumped to her feet to catch it in midair. “You’re welcome. Did you find your clients the perfect home to live out their golden years?” The only time Dan ever borrowed her car was when he had senior-citizen clients who couldn’t make the climb into his oversize Suburban. She’d told him when he bought the thing it wasn’t practical for a real estate agent, but there was no talking him out of it. So on occasion he begged her to trade vehicles for the day. What are friends for?

“Good catch. We wrote an offer on one of the new condos downtown. They loved it.” Dan rubbed his hands together. “Only had to show them three places before they made up their mind.” He pumped his fist. “Sold!” His premature gray made him look older than he was, which probably made people assume he had years more experience than he did. It was moments like this, and in his twentysomething antics, that his real age showed.

“Congratulations.”

“A good day, despite the rain.” He glanced out the window, then shrugged. “I’ve got to run. I’m showing a Bank of America exec a few places this evening.” He turned, then leaned back into her office. “If I get done early I’ll bring Jeb’s barbecue. I’m showing a house right near there. Deal?”

“I thought you had a date with LeighAnn tonight.”

“She had something come up at work, so I went ahead and booked this showing for tonight. We’re going out tomorrow for lunch instead.”

“Okay. Sounds good then.” But he was already walking away. Didn’t matter. He pretty much showed up at her house as he pleased anyway, and she was fine with that. He was kind of like the brother she never had. A good friend, but sometimes a pain in the butt.

Just as she sat back down Peggy walked in. “Ready to celebrate being done with the McKinley project?”

“Oh yeah!” She leaned back in her chair. “I just sent in my final reports. Everything is officially off my plate.”

“You did a great job. Thank you so much for taking that on when it was in such a mess.”

“You know me. I like the challenge.”

“That’s true.” Peggy peered over the desk toward Liz’s computer. “So what are you working on there?”

“I was just doing a little daydreaming over this B and B for sale.” She spun her screen toward Peggy. “Look at this place. Isn’t it dreamy?”

“Gorgeous. I could spend a week there.”

“Me too.” This house was a lot fancier than what Liz had in mind, but someday she was going to find the perfect place at the perfect price. “Still dreaming.”

“Why would you even dream of leaving all this?” Peggy spread her arms wide. “I mean trading the chaos for tranquility? Are you crazy?”

“Maybe, but someday I want the only thing to overwhelm me to be the joy of a beautiful sunrise, instead of back-to-back meetings that steal my last hope for a good day.” She and Peggy had daydreamed about low-stress jobs before, but she was pretty sure that it was all talk on Peggy’s part. Someday Liz would do it. “Doesn’t that sound like heaven?”

“It does.” Peggy leaned on the desk. “I’m not sure the last time I took the time to watch a sunrise. We’re going skiing in Boone next week. I’m going to make a point of doing it … at least one day.”

That sounded wonderful. She couldn’t wait to do the same. “I love Boone. It’s not all that far from my grandparents’ old lodge.”

“Do you think it’s too early for some holiday decorations to be up?”

Thanksgiving wasn’t until next week. “My grandparents used to start decorating for the holidays in October. It was quite the extravaganza. People came from all over to see it. That place was … magical.” She felt the remaining stress from the McKinley project fall away. Thinking about Angel’s Rest always had that effect on her. “I remember Pop and Gram making a big deal of driving over to Boone to get cookies at Boonies.”

“Boonies has the best snickerdoodles.” Peggy put her hand on her stomach. “You’re making me hungry.”

“My grandmother’s snickerdoodles were even better, and I have her recipe. It’s about the only thing I can bake. I’ll have to make you some.” She could almost smell the buttery cinnamon aroma of those cookies baking in the mountain-house kitchen.

“What are you waiting for?”

“Time, and it just so happens I have a lot of that right now. I’ll make you some.” She glanced back at the computer screen. Wistfully, she said, “I really can’t wait to find the perfect inn and follow in my grandparents’ footsteps.”

Peggy laughed. “I can almost picture you tottering around welcoming guests into your home with a plate of cookies. Since you sent in the final paperwork on your project why don’t you head on out for the day? Take tomorrow too, and make a long weekend of it. We won’t be reassigning projects until after the holidays.”

She never took days off, but this time she didn’t have a project to work on and she did have a ton of banked vacation time to burn. “That actually sounds really good. I haven’t even begun my holiday shopping yet.” She pulled out the bottom drawer of her desk and grabbed her purse. She liked her holidays simple these days, so she really didn’t have much shopping to do except for a few people here at the office, but relaxing at home would be nice. She could do both. “I’ll take you up on that offer.”

“Great. Enjoy.” Peggy headed out the door.

Liz wasn’t far behind her. On the elevator down, she made a mental checklist of the stores she could hit on her way home.

Outside, red and gold leaves swept by in a trail toward the storm drain. She pulled the hood of her coat up over her head, then splashed her way through the ice-cold rain.

She shivered as she slammed the car door. “Whew.” She had doubted the meteorologists’ excitement over a possible freeze warning this week, but she had to admit it was seeming more likely now.

She pressed the ignition button. The vents blew cool air across her arms. She stabbed at the buttons, desperate to find some warmth.

30 MILES TO EMPTY displayed across the bottom of the dashboard.

“Really, Dan?” Why do you always do that, and on a rainy day no less. This was just one more reason they’d never be more than friends. He drove her nuts with his lackadaisical attitude. Why was it so hard to respect never going below half a tank of gas?

She drove out of the parking lot and stopped at the first gas station, grumbling under her breath the whole time she pumped the gas. The wind swirled around her, knocking her hood back and stirring long strands of her hair against her cheeks. By the time the tank was full she felt cold to the bone.

As she jumped back into her Range Rover, all that gusto she’d had for leaving the office early to do some shopping just followed those drowning leaves down the storm drain. She pushed her damp hair behind her ear and headed straight home.

Inside, she peeled out of her wet coat and hung it in the shower to dry. Flipping through the mail, she dropped the junk mail into the trash can in the kitchen, then stopped and reached back down to retrieve a colorful oversize postcard.

A dozen homes lined one side of the card. It was a list of properties for sale at auction, and the one in the bottom right corner looked a lot like her grandparents’ inn at Antler Creek. Her favorite place in the world.

Liz grabbed her laptop and set it on the island, typing the URL of the auction company into a browser as she slid onto one of the handwoven rattan high-back barstools. There were several properties listed in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the auction portal.

It took only a few clicks to bring up the information on the property listed on the card. It looked a lot like Angel’s Rest, but upon closer inspection it wasn’t like it at all. Her grandparents’ inn was a true timber-frame home. The one in the listing just had the look of a log home. There were a lot of those around these days. Plus it was only about half the size. The similarity had just been wishful thinking.

She scanned through the other listings. Unlike the properties on the B and B site she usually daydreamed over, all of these were being auctioned, and opening-bid amounts were extremely reasonable. Excitement built as she stumbled upon more impressive-looking homes in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

She scrolled down, zipping through the long inventory of homes being auctioned. She read through the list of requirements to bid. It was doable. Someone else’s misfortune could be her gain.

Even more excited with the possibility, she clicked back to the list of homes.

One of the houses caught her eye. She zoomed in.

More wishful thinking? Or could this one really be…?

She double-clicked on the image and expanded the photo.

There was no mistaking that front door. A zing raced from her heart to her fingers as she zoomed in on the next picture. Someone had hand-carved that door for them in exchange for something. Pop was always bartering one thing or another. She was thirteen the summer he installed it.

The place was overgrown and definitely in need of some TLC, but that was easy enough to fix. She gulped back emotion as the familiar sight brought memories rushing back more clearly than ever. From the aerial view she could see that the two cabins, and the old barn out back were still there too.

Dan called out a hello. “I thought I’d beat you here. You’re home early.” He’d let himself in through the door from the garage.

“Yeah.” She was only half listening as her eyes landed on the sale date. Tomorrow? If she was going to make her dream come true, she had a lot of work to do in a hurry.

“My clients rescheduled for tomorrow because of the rain, but I brought barbecue anyway.”

“Thanks. That sounds good.” Liz stood from her chair, and went to help him. “What do you know about buying properties at auction?”

“You mean besides the fact you get what you pay for and there are usually a ton of problems with them?” He started unpacking food from a large paper sack. “Or that you have to plan in advance if you really want to jump in on an auction property.” He neatly lined up napkins next to plasticware next to sauce packets. “You need all your ducks in a row. And if you want to buy a place you should work through me. Rain or shine, unlike my clients this afternoon who canceled because of the rain. I hate rain.”

He could bellyache about the rain all he wanted, but nothing was going to dampen her mood. “Ducks happen to love this weather,” Liz said with a playful flap of her arms. “And I happen to think it’s a perfect day for getting my ducks in a row.”


Copyright © 2019 by Nancy Naigle