Stranded at Christmas. For food critic and TV personality Graham Forrester, that is definitely not part of the game plan. He’s on his way to North Carolina to celebrate the holidays with his family and take a hard look at his life. A sense of discontent is hot on his tail. The last thing he needs is to be trapped by a record-breaking snow storm in the backwater town of Hope Springs, Tennessee. To add insult to injury, he’s stuck at a B&B so steeped in Christmas cheer it causes his teeth to ache.
IT expert Lydia Cutler is transplanting from Nashville to…wherever God chooses. Free spirited but searching for meaning, she has agreed to help her surrogate family reestablish Christmas Inn as a go-to resort for year-round Christmas joy. Bumping up the spirits of Graham-eneezer Scrooge becomes a captivating perk to her life at the Inn, however temporary.
From the moment they meet, the unexpected becomes the norm. An emergency at the Inn. A midnight kiss. The tolling of long-silent bells in a nearby chapel. Everything comes together to seal Graham and Lydia’s destiny, but will they find life answers that lead to love, happiness and God’s perfect plan?
Women with dimples had always been Graham Forrester’s weakness.
He pushed through the expansive, double-door entrance of Christmas Inn and stomped blackened slush from the surface of his boots, littering a wide plastic mat that featured a colorful Christmas tree and the words, ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.’
He gave an involuntary snort. “Seriously? No. Way.”
Sure, his muttered condemnations stemmed from a jaded attitude more than anything else. After all, who wouldn’t be jaded after finding themselves stranded at the side of the road due to a broken down car, in the back-of-beyond, in who-knows-where Tennessee, at t-minus three weeks to Christmas? For now, all Graham wanted to do was land in bed, hunker in for the night, and start fresh in the morning by making a hasty exit.
And this Christmas Inn place the tow truck guy had recommended and driven him to? Honestly? The place was so full of Christmas cheer it made his teeth ache. Wonderful, indeed. But, all that noise aside, the lovely woman who occupied an office spot behind the reception area provided him with a welcome and warming distraction.
After all, there was just something about dimples…
“Excuse me?” Graham addressed the woman while he dropped his computer bag and oversized duffle on the floor at his feet. Dimples tossed him an inquiring look, and a smile. On the inside, he froze, and held, because, on top of those dimples, oh—what a smile.
“Hi. Can I help you?”
He regrouped on the fly. “Yes, please. I don’t have a reservation, but I need a room for the night if there’s one available.”
“Sure. Let’s get you settled in.” She wheeled back in her chair and spun. “Paulina!”
Graham focused on her legs as she maneuvered her seat. So, Dimples was petite. Petite, but sweet looking. Innocent and wispy. Looking at her, Graham pictured all things airy, pixyish. Warm moved rapidly toward very warm. For the first time in hours, he even cracked a smile and continued to enjoy the view as his hotel-helper returned to work.
“Good evening, sir, I’m Paulina Kovacs, manager of Christmas Inn. How can I help you?”
Ambushed from his right by the arrival of a woman, dressed in full-on business attire—at way past business hours, Lord bless her—with dark hair twisted into a roll at her neck. Paulina pushed the frames of her black-rimmed glasses to a higher perch on her nose and offered a welcoming smile.
“My car broke down about a mile outside town and the gentleman who gave me a tow told me you might have a room available.”
“Ah, yes. That’d be Tom Sanders. He’s a good man, and a top rate mechanic. You’ll be up and running in no time. Welcome to the inn, and don’t you worry about a thing. We’ll set matters right in the morning. I have a wonderful room available on the second floor that overlooks the courtyard. Unlike some resort-style B&B’s, it even has a private bath.”
Graham stifled a shudder. A private bath. She spoke the words as though they were an amenity rather than a necessity. He covered fast with a trademark, camera-ready smile. He’d had a lot of practice at that lately—faking his way through things to avoid the growing mess of his life. Life worked better when you could move right along and dodge the bullets—sort of like a high-stakes paintball tournament…
“I appreciate your hospitality. The room sounds great.”
“Follow me.” Paulina gestured toward a curving stairwell while Graham retrieved his bags. “Typically, this is our honeymoon suite, but I doubt any honeymooners will be straggling across the doorstep in this weather.”
“Highly unlikely,” he muttered, looking around as she led the way. “Ah…don’t you need my credit card information, or…”
“Oh, no problem. It’s late, and I’m sure you’re tired. We can deal with that in the morning. Just check in with me then. Lydia, I’ll be right back. Thanks for manning the fort.”
So, Dimples had a name. Lydia. He rolled it around in his head a few times, and his smile went from manufactured to real. Ascending the stairs, he kept an eye on her, watching as she clicked away at her keyboard, leaning forward to check her monitor.
“Lydia Cutler. My Internet specialist. As you’ll see, we’ve got some dust settling as we renovate the Inn. Lydia there is dragging me, kicking and screaming, into the age of technology. Lovely, isn’t she?”
Busted. “Oh…yeah. Sure.” Overtired to begin with, Graham nearly took a tumble when Paulina’s wily observation called him out and jarred him to proper focus. “She’s lovely, of course.”
Paulina chuckled as she paused in front of the first door they came to, marked by a brass number four. “Here we are. Christmas Inn has been family owned for generations. It’s kind of a fixture here in Hope Creek.”
Hope Creek. Of course that was the name of the town where he had landed. Graham ached to give a derisive snicker, or at least roll his eyes. Polite behavior had him nodding in gracious understanding. After all, it wasn’t the manager’s fault he was so burned out and cynical these days. Nope. The fault for that rested entirely on his shoulders, and his New Year’s resolution was to perform an about face.
But how? The answer to that question continued to give him trouble.
“…from early 1900, and the courtyard is a gem. Rimmed by evergreens and all lit up with Christmas lights. Straight ahead is Jingle Bell Creek, and to your left is North Pole Bridge.”
He had drifted while Paulina played tour guide. Had she seriously just said Jingle Bell Creek and North Pole Bridge? Shaking it off, determined to nip his rude behavior, Graham joined her at the big bay window where she had drawn back a sheer to reveal the view below. Not much could be seen in the night except for a flood-lit courtyard where metal benches circled a small open area now covered by a layer of snow. The white stuff continued to build and drift as the wind picked up and whistled against the glass pane. Trees and bushes formed a perimeter. Walkways had been recently shoveled, it seemed, but rapidly filled with a fresh layer of white. The trees, though thoroughly coated, still glowed with diffused multi-colored light.
Graham looked over his shoulder, returning his attention to the interior of the room, which was something akin to crashing the theatrical set of A Christmas Carol. Damask wallpaper featured shades of red, green and gold. Thick fringed tassels held back elaborate swags of heavy brocade. Swoops of faux evergreen decorated the top of a mahogany four-poster and a subtle undercurrent of apple, pine and cinnamon piqued his senses. Then there were the elaborate, seemingly hand-painted ornaments that danced on varying length ribbons from the inner sill of the window, sparkling and spinning as the heat vents came to life. Warm air did battle against the cold and snow that danced thick from an ink-black sky. Renderings of St. Nicholas were positioned throughout, upon end tables, tucked into a far corner…
“If there’s anything you need, just dial zero on the phone there by your bed.” Christmas Inn’s warm but studious manager crossed the room and opened the door. “I’ll leave you to get a good night’s sleep.”
“Thank you, Paulina. Your kindness is just what I needed.” And the truth was, he meant it.
“Happy to oblige. G’night.”
Once the door closed and he was alone at last, Graham forced his muscles to ease. Working to unwind mentally, he wandered his suite. The quiet that settled helped. In spite of the travel-crushing snow storm, he was grudgingly charmed by the over-the-top décor. If only he wasn’t so put off by the world at large right now. Dissatisfaction, on a number of levels, pushed at him from all sides, negating any kind of exit, or respite.
He needed a new life. He needed a change. He needed to shift course and rediscover himself, his passion. If he didn’t, he was going to end up wasting the life he’d been given. Sighing, he connected and charged his cell phone then did the same for his laptop, opting to log on to his e-mail account and check recent traffic. Anything to keep from dwelling. The most recent offering came from his big sister, Becca. He’d see her in a few days for the annual Forrester family Christmas celebration. He smiled at the thought, until he took in the subject line of her e-mail. Any Publicity is Good Publicity. Right?
Graham frowned. What? He clicked, and began to read.
Hey, G, –Becca had always referred to him as ‘G’—you might want to check out social media feeds at your station and Knoxville Express magazine. The broadcast of that cook-off segment you judged yesterday seems to have made a few virtual waves. BTW? That pompous, arrogant jerk you ousted on yesterday’s segment totally deserved it. Not even a question. Don’t let what he said afterward bug you. K? Love you and see you soon! Becca
Frown deepening, Graham chased the links Becca had included. Via Twitter, he was led straight to YouTube and a video of his weekly visit to Knoxville’s KRTN-TV where he worked the entertainment beat. For years now he’d provided insights and information about local events around Knoxville as well as restaurant visits and reviews.
His monitor came alive with the image of a mocked-up kitchen stationed on the ground floor of a massive, three-story mall. In the background, holiday shoppers bustled. In honor of the upcoming holidays, this segment featured a cook-off between three local chefs. The episode had been shot a few days ago, and Graham had acted as one of the judges along with a local radio personality and the star running back of the Tennessee Titans.
Graham tuned out the banter and back-and-forth discussion of the final food evaluations that would lead to the crowning of an overall champion. Instead, when the time came, he hyper-focused on the dismissal of the first of three combatants—a young and self-aggrandizing chef named Frederic Mendell.
Lips curled into a sneer, Frederic addressed the judging panel after being eliminated from the competition. “Of course, I thank you for the opportunity. I don’t agree with the verdict, but I understand the laws of subjectivity.” His slicing gaze made it clear he falsified humility in favor of being affronted. “I’ve orchestrated nine-course meals for the governor of our state. The reviews of my bistro represent a social media explosion. So, at the end of the day, I can honestly say it’s better to be the chef who can rather than a wanna-be chef who judges and critiques rather than attempting success by being one with food.”
Frederic didn’t call Graham out by name, but the exiled chef didn’t need to. Everyone who watched Graham’s restaurant reviews on TV, or read his foodie travel articles in Knoxville Express understood the implication. Tact and grace had kept Graham from spewing the hot retort that bubbled on his tongue. On camera, Graham and his colleagues worked together to shrug it off, but a poisoned dart had struck home, injecting a heavy dose of self-doubt—and disappointment.
Shaking free, Graham slid open dresser drawers, stashed what few items had followed him to Hope Creek. He stripped off his button-down shirt and tossed it on the bed as he headed to the bathroom, ready to brush his teeth and get to sleep.
All the same, thoughts of Frederic Mendell followed close, continuing to stir Graham’s anger—and uncertainty. By over ten-to-one, the comments Graham had just tracked on the social media site decried the bitter outburst, giving Graham nods of support. The encouragement was great, sure, but still he felt needled as poison leaked beneath his skin. He had worked hard in the culinary arts, training in classic French cuisine at the Atlanta Culinary Institute. Now, he was nothing more than a talking head, a meaningless television and magazine food critic on the outside of the food world he loved, looking inside through an impenetrable sheet of plate glass.
He had gifts—but he wasn’t using them. Shelving his talent, he grew to realize, was the equivalent of holding God in contempt. Maybe Frederic’s rude and jarring shove to the ego was just what Graham needed in order to move forward along a new, albeit riskier path.
He groaned, dropping his head back. More turmoil. What a perfect end to a perfect day. Once he toppled into bed, exhausted, drained and disappointed, Graham’s last thought before succumbing to exhaustion was of a lovely woman with twinkling amber eyes, a dynamite smile, and the most kissable pair of dimples imaginable…
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