A steamy new Holiday romance in Amber Kelly’s Lake Mistletoe series is out this week, and I have the prologue and the whole first chapter for you.
Six Years Ago
“I can’t believe you’re leaving three days before Christmas. What am I supposed to tell Cobie?”
The bitter chill of my wife, Lonnie’s, words hang in the air as I pack my bags, preparing to leave behind the warmth of home and family for a new photojournalist assignment in Germany.
“It’s one Christmas, and she’s two years old. She won’t even realize I’m gone,” I say.
She crosses her arms over her chest and stands in the doorway. “That’s not the point. I will. Your parents will.”
I close the top of my suitcase and walk to her. “I’m sorry. I know this is horrible timing, but it’s the first on-location assignment I’ve been offered, and I need to go. This is a good thing for us. For our future. This is big.”
She sighs and plants her forehead against my chest. “I know you’re right. It’s just Christmas with our family is big too. I don’t want you to miss the big stuff.”
I kiss the top of her head. “One year. I promise. That’s all. I just need my foot in the door.”
She looks up at me. “Okay, one year.”
The doorbell rings.
“Your chariot awaits.”
She gives me a half-smile as she goes to answer the door.
I pick up suitcase and throw my camera bag over my shoulder.
Excitement washes over me as I head out to the taxi, but I can’t shake the pang in my chest as I look back at Lonnie, holding a waving Cobie in her arms, knowing that this Christmas, my lens will capture stunning scenes far away from the cozy embrace of my family. For the first time, I’ll miss the sparkle in Cobie’s eyes as she unwraps her gifts, the sound of her giggles filling our living room.
But with every shutter click, I vow to freeze the moments I witness, not just for my camera and the magazine feature, but also for my heart, so when I return, I can share the world with her.
One frame at a time.
I hold Cobie’s hand tightly as I help her down from the passenger side of the rented SUV.
The crisp air carries the scent of pine, and her eyes widen with excitement as she takes in the sight of our stopover on our way to Paris for Christmas.
“Daddy, it’s so pretty here!” she exclaims, her small hand pointing toward the glistening lake across the road.
Her excitement is music to my ears. She’s been rather melancholy since I picked her up yesterday, but the sight of snow perked her up on the ride from the airport.
Living in San Antonio, Texas, she has never seen snow falling in person before. When the flakes began to flutter around the SUV, I had to stop and pull over onto the side of the road so she could get out and touch it before we could continue.
I smile down at her, my heart filling with love for my moody little girl.
Lake Mistletoe is a holiday destination here in the Idaho Rockies. Nestled in the valley just down the mountainside of Sun Valley, it has grown in popularity over the past few years and has landed on the radar of Epic Odysseys, my employer and one of the largest international travel magazines in the world.
“It sure is, sweetheart. We’re going to have a great time here,” I say, ruffling her hair gently.
Cobie beams up at me, her freckled face lit up with joy.
As we walk toward the cozy inn the magazine booked for us, I can’t help but feel a sense of peace settle over me. It’s been a few years since I was able to spend the holidays with my daughter.
Her mother and I have a custody agreement in place that allows me to spend every other Christmas with Cobie, but work has caused me to be away most every December, and Lonnie and her new husband, Greg, have been playing Mrs. Claus and Santa in my stead.
Inside The Gingerbread Inn, we are met with the aroma of apple cider and freshly baked cookies.
A woman wearing a red sweater, Santa hat, and warm smile greets us, “Good afternoon. Welcome to The Gingerbread Inn.”
“Hi, I’m Cobie, and this is my daddy,” Cobie offers.
“It’s nice to meet you, Cobie and Cobie’s daddy. I’m Annette.”
“Do you have cookies?” Cobie asks.
Annette grins and looks over the desk and down at my curious girl and whispers, “I’m pretty sure Miss Trixie just pulled a fresh batch from the oven. If you want to check out the room down the hall, the one with the big fireplace, I bet they’re still warm.”
Cobie leaves me standing at the front desk as she takes off to explore every nook and cranny of the inn with wide-eyed wonder.
I watch as she skips her way down a hallway and peeks around the corner. A squeal of glee fills the air. I chuckle.
She’s growing up so fast, and moments like this are precious.
“I think she found the cookies,” Annette says.
“I believe she has.”
“Okay, Cobie’s dad, how can I help you?”
“We have a reservation under Isaac Ralston,” I reply.
She taps at her keyboard. “Yes, we have you in a double room for five nights. Is that correct?”
She hands me a brass key on a fuzzy reindeer key chain. I twirl it around on my finger.
How long has it been since I was given an actual key for a room?
Most hotels or vacation rentals use key cards, mobile keys, or keyless touch-pad entry these days. The brass key adds to the charm of this live gingerbread house.
“You guys are in room 210. It’s on the second floor. Just turn right at the top of the stairs. Dinner is served in the dining room at six, and you’re in luck because our cook, Alice, is preparing her famous chicken ’n’ dumplings tonight.”
“That sounds amazing. I’m going to run out and grab our bags,” I say.
Annette smiles. “No problem. I’ll keep an eye on Cobie.”
I take another glance down the hallway before I head back out into the cold to fetch our luggage and my camera bag from the back of the SUV.
As I approach the vehicle, I hear a shout.
My head snaps to the snow-covered stairs at my left that lead above the garage, and I see a very pregnant woman struggling with a large plastic box.
Concerned, I quickly make my way over to help, carefully navigating the icy path to lend her a hand.
“Let me get that for you,” I say as I take the load from her arms.
“Oh, thank you. I didn’t realize it was so heavy. Keller would kill me if I slipped,” she says.
I carry the box down to the landing, set it on the ground, and go back and extend my hand to help her down.
“I’m Willa, by the way. I own the inn,” she introduces.
“Hi, Willa. I’m Isaac. I’m here to photograph the town for Epic Odysseys, and my daughter and I will be your guests for a few days.”
She smiles. “Yes, the mayor told me to expect you. We’re very excited to have our hometown featured in your magazine,” she says as I lift the box again and follow her to the door.
I open it and wait for her to make it inside.
“Daddy, Daddy! They have hot cocoa and cookies in there,” Cobie exclaims, as she comes running toward us.
“Slow down. Don’t run,” I call as she barrels into my legs.
“Do you want to have cocoa with me?” she asks as she looks up at me.
“I do. But I’m helping Miss Willa at the moment, and then I need to get our things from the car and take them to our room.”
Her eyes slide to my right, where Willa is standing with her hand resting on her swollen belly.
“Is there a baby in your tummy?” Cobie asks.
“Yes, ma’am. A big baby boy, and I bet he’d love some cocoa and cookies,” Willa answers.
Cobie steps back and looks at me. Then, she points down the hallway. “The cookies are that way. Meet us when you’re done,” she instructs.
“You got it, boss,” I quip as I set the box on the reception desk.
She takes Willa’s hand, and the two of them head to the treats.
I return outside to fetch our bags and carry them to our room.
It’s a good size with two queen beds. There is a small sitting area to the left with a gliding rocker and a side table with a lamp in front of an Amish electric fireplace. There is a nightstand between the beds that holds a nostalgic ceramic Christmas tree with colorful bulbs. Two bottles of water and an ice bucket are sitting beside the television, which is perched upon a beautifully carved live-edge console. There’s a sliding barn door that leads to a private bathroom.
I set my suitcase on the bed closest to the door and Cobie’s pink suitcase on the other. I purchased it for her for her third birthday. It matches the one I bought for Lonnie with a plan to take them both on many great adventures.
Here we are, five years later, and it’s the first time she’s had the chance to use it.
* * *
“Wow, this is quite a spread,” I say as we take a seat for dinner.
“Alice and Hal are the best. You won’t find a finer meal in all of Lake Mistletoe.” Harold Peterson, a frequent guest of the inn, whom I met earlier today, gives his opinion.
“Oh, Harold, thank you,” Alice bellows.
Alice, the inn’s cook, and her husband, Hal, wave off the compliment.
“It’s the truth. My family and I have been coming here for over twenty years, and Alice’s apple dumplings are one of the reasons why.”
His grandsons, Brad and Jason, eagerly agree.
As we eat, all the patrons around the table reminisce about the years they’ve spent celebrating Christmas with Willa’s grandparents, the former owners of the inn. Each one talking of the staff as if they were members of their family.
It’s odd. How can people who are employed by a place you rent become so important to you? I’ve traveled to many destinations and stayed in some impressive places, but I don’t think I could recall the name of a single front-desk clerk or cook at an establishment without looking back at my paperwork.
“So, Isaac, are you going to be here to enjoy the Christmas Market?” Trixie—the inn’s manager and mother of Willa’s husband, Keller—asks.
“Oh, that would make for excellent photos for the article,” Willa interjects.
“What’s the Christmas Market?” Cobie asks.
“Every year, we have a tree-lighting festival with a holiday market. It’s a lot of fun. There are games and sleigh rides around the lake, an ice-skating rink, and even a Christmas boat parade with prizes. Keller and Bob go all out with their decorations every year,” Trixie explains.
“You should see what we have planned for this year,” Bob—Trixie’s husband and Keller’s dad—adds.
Cobie’s hopeful eyes come to me. “Can we go?”
“When is it?” I ask Trixie.
“Saturday after next. We’ll be baking and crafting all week to prepare.”
I look down at Cobie. “Sorry, kiddo, we’re leaving for Paris on Sunday.”
Her eyes fall to her plate, and she mumbles, “That’s okay.”
“Hey, Paris sounds like so much fun. I’m a little jealous,” Willa chimes in.
“It does, and you guys will have a reason to come back next year,” Trixie cajoles.
Cobie’s disappointed eyes flitter to hers. “Yeah, I guess.”
There’s my melancholy girl again.
I look down at her. “We’re going to have a great time while we are here, I promise.”
“We can give you a list of highlights to check out,” Willa offers.
“The mayor has set us up with a guide to show us around the town for a few days,” I tell them.
“Perfect. And, Cobie, you might not be here for the market, but Alice and I would love some help getting ready for it. My grandchildren are coming over tonight to make wish bottles,” Trixie says.
“You would?” Cobie beams.
“What are wish bottles?” she asks Trixie.
“Well, the story goes that, every year, good boys and girls in Lake Mistletoe can make a wish, and if they believe with all their hearts, then Santa will stir the water as his sleigh passes over on Christmas Eve, filling the lake with Christmas magic, and their wishes will be granted. This year, we are taking tiny glass bottles with cork stoppers and filling them with Christmas stars and snowflakes. Each kid will write their wish on a blank piece of paper and tuck it inside. We’ll attach a red or green ribbon so you can hang your wish on the tree, where the magic is sure to find it,” Trixie explains.
Cobie’s eyes go wide. “Is that true?”
Lexie—one of the girls across the table, seated next to her mother—leans over and whispers to her, “My wish came true last year. If you want to make one before you leave, I’ll keep it and hang it on the tree for you.”
Cobie nods at her, and then her pleading eyes look up at me. “Can I help them, Daddy?”
I smile. “Sure, kiddo.”
We finish dinner, which ends with coffee or milk and a mini gingerbread Bundt cake.
We say our good nights after dessert, and I take Cobie up to our room.
I put away our things as she takes a bath, brushes her teeth, and gets into her pajamas.
She climbs into her bed and burrows under the cozy covers.
I sit on the edge and tuck her in tight, ensuring she is snug and warm.
“Will you tell me a story, Daddy?” she asks.
“What kind of story do you want to hear?” I ask.
She answers through a yawn, “Tell me a story about Santa Claus.”
I lie down beside her and prop myself against the headboard. I make up an adventurous tale of Santa and his reindeer crashing into and getting caught on the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Mrs. Claus coming to the rescue by sending a group of elves to help save Christmas.
Cobie’s eyes get heavy with sleep, and before the elves make it to Santa’s side, she is lightly snoring.
I kiss the top of her head, stand quietly, and head into the bathroom to shower the day away.