Alex West stood in the middle of the concourse at Cleveland Hopkins airport and toyed with the handle of his bag. His assistant, Jill Gosk, fiddled with her phone and growled. The people on the plane had been irritated by the lateness of the flight and the snow delaying their landing a few minutes. He didn’t mind. Christmas, even seven days away, was the time to slow down and spend precious hours with family and friends—not stress over things he couldn’t control.
“What’s the matter?” He noticed a dusting of snow on the windowsill and wished he were out in the cold. He loved Christmas in Ohio, even if he hadn’t spent much time in the state in a few years. “Jill?”
“The car should be ready so all we have to do is retrieve your bags from the claims area. According to my app, the bags are down there.” Jill glanced about. “This is a tiny airport.”
“It’s not LAX, but it works.” He pointed to the corridor. “Let’s get the luggage.” He nudged her forward. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. Girl, you save my butt almost every day.” He grinned and fell into step beside her. “How’s Nick?”
She blushed. “I—I didn’t think you knew about him.”
“He called to tell me you were together,” Alex said. “I told him I was happy for you. I’m glad you found each other.” He rode the escalator to the ground floor. The sound of Christmas carols echoed in the air, along with the din of conversation. He watched the people moving about. There were stories in these folks. Stories about love lost, love found, people reconnecting and the joy of Christmas. He chuckled to himself. He could use these bits and pieces for his own upcoming writing. The book wouldn’t write itself and he needed the right push to get started.
“Here. Our bags are in carousel C.” Jill marched up to the revolving belt filled with luggage. “Keep your eyes peeled.”
“Sure will.” Alex sighed. He trusted Jill with his schedule and his business dealings. She knew how to get him from point A to point B without issue. He slid his gaze over the array of bags. “Either I’m wrong, or I don’t see mine.” He pointed to her lavender suitcase. “There’s yours.”
She nodded and grabbed her bags from the belt. “Got them. Yours should be along.” She checked her phone again and turned the screen around. “See? The app says they’re here.”
“Right, but they’re on the second time through and mine aren’t there. I’ve kept an eye out.” He glanced over her shoulder at the phone. “The app is wrong.”
“It can’t be.” She massaged her temple. “They have to be here.”
He’d learned not to let minor setbacks get to him. Being a writer meant having a thick skin. Just because one person didn’t like his work didn’t mean a myriad of others agreed. Besides, who could be upset at Christmas? “It’s okay. We’ll go to the lost luggage department.” He guided her and her bag away from the carousel. “My bags are probably halfway to Chicago.”
“I’m so sorry, RR.”
She’d used his pen name. He shouldn’t be annoyed, but he’d rather be referred to by his given name in this instance. “Don’t sweat it. We’re on the way to my parents and I’m sure I can borrow some of my father’s clothes until my luggage gets here—if we didn’t simply go to the wrong carousel.” He’d bet the bags were on the wrong plane, but he saw no reason to get upset. “It’s going to be all right.” He strode up to the counter.
The woman at the desk smiled, but before he could speak, Jill stepped forward.
“Hi. I booked the flight for Mr. Taylor and we’ve arrived, but his luggage hasn’t. I have the information on the app and everything.” Jill held up her phone. “See?”
The woman smiled again. “Let me check your information.” She paused. “RR Taylor? As in the author RR Taylor?”
“That’s me.” He offered his hand. “I’m heading over to North Bend for Christmas with my family and to do a book signing the day after tomorrow. If you’re available, you should stop in.”
“I’m working all week,” the attendant said. “But it’s great to meet you. I’ve read all your books. I loved Crispin in New York.”
“Thank you. If you have a piece of paper, I’ll autograph it for you.” He waited for her to give him something to write on, then signed the page with a special note for her. “There. Enjoy.”
“Thank you.” The attendant beamed. “Wow.” She tucked the paper into her front pocket. “I wish I had better news for you concerning your bags. According to my tracking system, your luggage was rerouted to New York and will be back in two days. We can call you when it’s at the terminal.”
“No,” Jill said. “He needs his clothes.”
“I’ll get by.” He placed his hand on Jill’s arm and turned his attention to the attendant. “Thank you. Where can I leave my information?” Not having his clothes or the presents he’d brought for his family wasn’t ideal, but he had little choice.
“I’ve got it on file with your baggage and flight numbers,” the attendant said. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Thank you. I hope I have my luggage before Christmas. If I don’t, then I don’t. I hope you have a Merry Christmas, too.” He nudged Jill. “We should go.”
“I messed up,” Jill said. “This is bad.”
“You didn’t mess up.” He nodded to the sign directing them to the car rental counter. “Why don’t you check on the car?”
“Oh yeah.” She darted away with her phone.
Alex sighed. Jill was a sweet woman, but so highly strung. He thanked the cosmos she’d come into his orbit to help with his promotional needs, but he could use a break from her. He followed behind her, but at a bit of a distance. One of his plans wasn’t going so well. Time to check on another of his schemes. He sent a text to Nick.
Are you at the hotel? She’s upset about my luggage being lost. Might need to be extra sweet to her. Do you have everything you need for tonight?
Alex didn’t wait for a response and instead tucked his phone into his jacket pocket. He hurried after Jill. He’d worked with her boyfriend to facilitate Nick’s proposal that night. Jill would be happy, Nick would have the woman he loved and Alex would have a break.
Jill stopped walking and her shoulders slumped. Her brow crinkled. She still had her phone to her ear. “You don’t understand. I reserved the car a month ago. We need that vehicle. I don’t care if it’s the holidays. We have places to be. No, I don’t want…my client is leaving. Hold on.” She stopped Alex. “Wait.”
“Take a breath. It’s Christmas. Everyone is on the edge and you getting upset isn’t helping. The more you and I flip out, the more upset everyone else will be.” He pointed to the rental counter. “Let’s check on the car in person.”
“I’ll handle it.” Jill pushed past him. “Wait over there.”
He should argue with her, but he’d just given his speech on being calm. Disputing wouldn’t get him anywhere. Part of him didn’t mind taking his time while getting to North Bend, but the rest of him wanted to unite Jill with Nick. Then she’d relax. Good thing Alex had flown Nick in ahead of time and had him installed in the hotel in North Bend.
Alex waited by the bank of windows and stared out at the planes on the tarmac. His thoughts wandered. Why had he stayed away from North Bend for so long? He loved the snow and quiet of Ohio and appreciated the small-town feel of his home base, but his apartment in Los Angeles had everything he needed. His favorite restaurants were within walking distance and while he didn’t want for anything entertainment-wise, he missed his friends in North Bend. The people he’d grown up and come of age with. He had so many fond memories of the town. Plus…there was Molly.
He held his bag tighter. Before he’d left town, he had to see Molly. They’d been so tight. He’d once thought he’d marry her. He’d never forget the blue of her eyes, the softness of her hair or the way she blushed when she smiled. They’d been the best of friends and she’d been his first girlfriend. First lots of things. Then they’d gone their separate ways. When they’d been together, he’d told her everything. She’d confided in him when she’d flunked her driving test and when she’d thought he wanted to fix her up with their mutual friend Tony. She hadn’t been in love with Tony—she’d loved Alex.
Flashes of his years with Molly came to mind—volunteering at the Santa Barn, secret Santa shopping and all those visits to the library… He’d heard about her opening the bookstore and vowed he’d sign books at the shop.
Wouldn’t she be surprised when she saw him? Was she single? He’d forgotten to ask his mother about Molly’s relationship status when he’d planned his trip back to Ohio. But wouldn’t his mother have mentioned Molly being married? Wouldn’t Molly have invited him to the wedding—if she’d gotten hitched?
Jill stomped up to him. “Okay. So, here’s the problem. We must have a car, but we can’t have two like I wanted. Just one, so we have to share.”
“I thought that was the plan.” It had been when he’d canceled her vehicle. She didn’t need a separate car if Nick had one and they’d be together.
“This isn’t right. Your luggage is missing, we’ve only got one car… What else can go wrong?” Jill asked.
“The luggage will come back and the car situation is fine.”
“Oh no.” Jill pinched the bridge of her nose. “It’s snowing.”
“I’ve driven in snow.”
“Ohio is cold,” Alex said. He stared at her. “You’re holding something back. What’s the rest of the issue?”
“I miss Nick. It’s Christmas and I’m not with the one I love.” She sighed. “I need some sleep and a few hours to regroup. I hate being this grouchy.”
“You’re stressed. It happens.” He grasped her shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. You never know—Nick might be waiting at the hotel.”
“Fat chance.” She sank onto the closest chair. “You don’t understand. I’m being pouty, and I hate it. The thing is, I thought I could do this job, but I feel like I’m failing. I’m sorry.”
“Stress is a pain in the neck.” He sat beside her and took the keys from her. “Take a few moments to recover. While I’m driving us to North Bend, why don’t you call Nick? That’ll make you feel better.”
“Ugh. That’s the other part of this. I tried to call him, but I can’t get an answer.”
He checked his phone. The LED light flashed green, meaning he had a new text. He retrieved the message from Nick.
Here and ready for the surprise. I can’t wait.
Good. Nick was in place. Alex tucked his phone in his pocket again. “Well, why not try again? He might have been temporarily engaged.” Drat. He should’ve chosen a different word. “Just call him.”
Jill stared at him. “How can you be so calm? Is it because you’re going to see Molly over Christmas?”
“Maybe.” Not really. Thinking about seeing his friend excited him. He hasn’t spent time with her in forever. He missed their friendship. Plus, he wanted to know why they’d drifted apart.
“Well, she seems nice.” Jill stood. “I feel better. Thanks for letting me freak out.”
He joined her and started toward the doors leading to the row of rental cars. “You’re welcome.”
“How long is the drive to North Bend?” She fell into step beside him. “It’s far away from here, isn’t it?”
“About an hour and a half.” He stopped at the parking slot containing the SUV. “This is what we have?”
“The dark blue behemoth. It was the only one not rented out.” Jill tried the passenger-side door. “It’s not the compact one, but it’ll do.”
“See? That’s the Christmas spirit.” He climbed behind the wheel of the SUV. “Here’s to the next leg of our journey. You’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and it would appear there’s satellite radio, so your favorite channels are on here, too.”
“Something is finally normal,” Jill said. “Yes.”
“As for you doing your job, don’t worry. I wouldn’t be in Ohio without you.” He could, but she needed the reassurance. “It’s Christmas. We start being jolly as of right now. We won’t let work get us upset and won’t worry about the signing. The spirit of the season is around us and we’re going to have fun.” If he had his way, Jill and Nick would be engaged that night and he’d have the next book started. Merry Christmas.