Everything appeared perfect through the viewfinder of my camera, and I couldn’t help but note the irony of what wasn’t being captured. Maybe that was how I should start looking at my life—through a metaphorical viewfinder. Focus on the stuff worth capturing and pretend that the rest of my existence wasn’t in absolute shambles. Too bad I wasn’t sure there was anything worth capturing at the moment.
I sighed and pulled out the chair from the kitchen table to get a new angle. The marine layer hadn’t burned off yet, causing the diffused light seeping through the windows to deepen the steel-blue icing of the cookies and brighten the white piping of the snowflake design. The dark, grained wood was one of my favorite backdrops lately—rustic, yet chic. I clicked a few more pictures and grabbed a quick panning video.
The narrator’s voice blared from my Bluetooth speaker. “It seemed they had found their assailant. Or had they?” The eerie theme music trilled through the empty kitchen, and my arm hairs stood on end.
“It wasn’t him,” I said aloud, scrolling through the images I’d captured. “It’s the boyfriend. He’s the only one with a clear motive.”
The subsequent advertisement for security cameras went silent mid-pitch, and a quiet laugh from behind sent me reeling in my chair. “Jeez, Ashlee!” My hand settled over my racing heart. “You scared me!”
Pure amusement lit Ashlee’s dark features, her suitcase stationed behind her. “Girl, of all people to have an obsession with true-crime podcasts ...” Her words faded into laughter, her ponytail swinging with her shaking head.
“If I know how murderers think, I’m less likely to be killed by one.” I tucked a mass of my blonde waves behind my ear, but it freed itself immediately, refusing to be tamed. “Besides, it wasn’t the podcast that scared me. I just wasn’t expecting you home until eleven.”
Her chin lowered, and she peered at me through the tips of her black bangs. “Quinn, it’s almost noon.”
My gaze flew to the clock. How did time do that? Hours passing like minutes?
Ashlee scanned the piles of dirty dishes, the flour and powdered sugar dusting the countertops, and the trays of baked goods that cluttered her kitchen. It was absolute chaos. “You may have outdone yourself. This mess might even top the one you made during your Jane Austen dessert week posts. What with the”—she wiggled her fingers in front of her—“stiff Jell-O stuff you made in those hilarious shaped molds.”
I laughed at the memory. “Flummery is a lot more difficult to make than I’d thought. And a lot messier, too.”
Ashlee smiled and gestured around us. “Honestly, you should do a behind-the-scenes shot for your social media followers. I think they deserve to see what your creative genius looks like in action.”
The camera strap tightened under the weight of the digital SLR, and I hopped down from the chair with an impish smile. “I’ll clean it all up. Right after I finish.”
She gave an airy laugh and shook her head again—her classic response to most things I said.
“Hey. You should be proud of me. I have the rest of November’s posts scheduled, and this”—I gestured around us—“is half of December’s. All of it accomplished while you were away.”
Her brows lifted. “You, Quinn Cook, are ahead of schedule?”
My triumphant smile lessened when her eyes narrowed.
She crossed her arms, leaning a shoulder against the wall and crossing her foot at the ankle. Shoot. Interrogation stance. “And what prompted this sudden spell of motivation?” Her gaze bore into me. “Did you agree to make the gingerbread houses for that wedding in Newport Beach?”
Was I that obvious? I bit at my lip. “I was weak without you here.”
With Ashlee’s disbelieving stare on me, I shifted. “Nikki sent a message asking me to reconsider. She was so sweet and complimentary ...”
“And completely inconsiderate of the previous refusal that we spent hours discussing.”
I tried an innocent smile. “She offered me more money.”
Ashlee’s eyes flicked to the ceiling. “Of course she did. She’s apparently made of it.”
Ashlee had never understood my admiration for Nikki. Not that she knew her, but she had a hard time believing a social media influencer with millions of followers could also manage to be an authentic and kind person. Though I knew differently, this clearly wasn’t the moment to change Ashlee’s mind about Nikki. I needed to try a new angle.
“It was you who first encouraged me to take this job. And I think you were right. It will help take my mind off of ... everything.”
“Need I remind you that you were the one who said you couldn’t handle the extra stress this year?”
“I know, but I just kept thinking about the opportunity I was giving up. Nikki’s audience is beyond massive, and doing the centerpieces for her wedding could be just the thing to revive my account and land me some sponsorships.” When her expression didn’t change, my shoulders dropped. “Honestly, it’s a last-ditch effort. I can’t keep putting so much time and money into this whole influencer thing if it’s not going to pan out.” Wow. I was starting to sound like the logical, reasonable person my parents were always encouraging me to be.
Ashlee considered me for a moment, then let out a resigned breath. “I just want to make sure you feel up to taking on something like this. But whatever you decide, you know I’ll support you.”
Her words pierced me. As my best friend, I knew she meant them, and yet a part of me wished for Cody to be here, offering his support like he’d vowed to do at our wedding. But he wasn’t here. I pushed the thought away and gave Ashlee a cautious smile. “Even if it means your kitchen will be a disaster for the better part of December? Because I can always make the centerpieces at my parents’—”
“No. We don’t need their well-intentioned guidance putting unhelpful thoughts into your head. You’ll make them here.”
I jumped forward, wrapping my arms around her. “Thank you.”
Ashlee allowed my hug for a moment before giving me a stiff pat on the back and straightening her blazer. “Okay. Okay. I get it. You love me.”
“More than you know.” I stepped back. “Now, tell me, how was your trip? Did you get the clients?” Ashlee had gone to school for nursing, but for the last two years, she’d been helping her uncle run an at-home care company. She not only managed their entire nursing staff throughout California and oversaw the hiring and training of all the nurses, but she also helped convince established medical practices to contract with their company. Basically, she was amazing—and gone a lot.
Ashlee gave a timid nod. “We did.”
“That’s incredible.” I took note of her absent smile. “So why don’t you look thrilled about it?”
“They want us to start training their staff the second week of December so they can offer their patients the service beginning January first.” She hesitated. “Which means I’ll need to be in San Francisco through the New Year.”
“Oh.” Despite the heaviness that settled into my chest, I gave a dismissive wave of my hand. “That’s okay.”
Her head tipped to the side, and she gave a small frown. “I fully intend to fly home on Christmas Eve so the two of us can at least spend Christmas together like we planned.”
Spending Christmas with Ashlee was the excuse I’d used to opt out of attending my family’s annual Christmas gathering. I typically loved extended-family events, but that had changed this past year. Now, it seemed I spent the majority of time at get-togethers dodging comments about my unfortunate situation and fake-smiling through unsolicited advice. I didn’t have the strength. Not at Christmas.
I shook my head. “You are not flying home for one day. You have family in San Francisco. Spend Christmas with them.”
“But it will be your first Christmas ...” Her words trailed off, and her frown intensified.
“Alone. Yes. But I’ll be fine. The divorce is official. Christmases alone will be my new normal.” I meant my tone to be cheery, but it came off more depressing than anything.
Ashlee pulled her phone from her back pocket. “That’s it. I’m booking my flight.”
“Don’t you dare.” I lunged for the phone in her hands, but she lifted it above her head and out of my reach. I was a scrappy little thing, so I debated jumping for it but reconsidered when I remembered the thousand-dollar camera dangling around my neck.
“If you’re here, then I’m coming home,” Ashlee said resolutely.
Before I could argue, a distant ringing drew our attention. My phone. I turned toward the muffled sound, pushing aside stacks of used mixing bowls and baking trays in my search. I glanced behind a dish of white, red, and green confetti popcorn and around the oversized platter that held the cookie advent calendar that had turned out more darling than I could have hoped.
The elusive ring stopped.
Ashlee’s gaze lifted from her own phone.
I shrugged. “I’m sure they’ll call back if it’s important.”
The ring started again.
“Where are you?” I asked in a sing-song voice, concentrating on the faint hum of the vibration instead of the tinkling ringtone. I neared the sink and peered around a stack of dirty pots to a discarded kitchen towel I’d used for raising cinnamon roll dough. I yanked at the corner, and, like a magic trick, my phone reappeared. “It’s a 212 number.” I glanced back at Ashlee with a furrowed brow.
She gestured toward the phone. “So answer it.”
“Yes, hello. Is this Quinn Cook?” The woman on the line had an East Coast accent that made me smile. I loved accents, despite that a clipped formality accompanied hers.
“This is Irene Garrity, the wedding planner for Nikki Aker.”
“Oh, yeah. Nikki said you’d be in touch.”
“Yes. Well, I sent you an email two days ago, but seeing as I didn’t hear from you, I thought I’d try calling.”
“I don’t remember seeing it ...” I put the phone on speaker and opened my email app, scrolling through the countless unopened emails that plagued my inbox. Sure enough, there it was. Sender: Irene Garrity. Subject: Aker/Carrigan Wedding. Please respond at your earliest convenience. “Found it. Sorry, I’m not super great at checking my emails.”
I cleared my throat. “But I can check them more often if I need to.”
“I would appreciate it, Ms. Cook. That way, we have our communications documented, and nothing gets missed.”
Ashlee smirked from across the kitchen, and I scowled at her. Responsiveness was certainly not my strong suit, like it was hers. Neither was organization. Actually, my list of non-strengths was pretty extensive. “Great idea.”
“If you will respond to my email as soon as possible with all the supplies you’ll require, I think all I need from you now are your intended dates to travel so I can book your flights.”
“Oh, I won’t need to fly. Newport is only an hour and a half from where I live.”
The silence on the line returned with an awkward vengeance.
I sent Ashlee an uneasy glance. “I promise I’ll be careful getting the gingerbread houses there. My friend already agreed to let me borrow her SUV—”
“Aren’t you from San Diego, Ms. Cook?”
“The wedding is in Newport ... Rhode Island. I don’t think you’ll want to drive.”
“Rhode Island?” I stared at the phone. “As in one of the thirteen colonies, Rhode Island?”
“That’s the one,” she said dryly, not even a little impressed with my sixth-grade knowledge of the state.
My mind skimmed over the brief communications I’d had with Nikki. “But I thought the wedding was going to be in Newport Beach. Isn’t Nikki from Orange County?”
“She lives there now, but she grew up in Rhode Island.”
I gave an absent nod, mouth open in dismay, only slightly aware that Ms. Garrity couldn’t hear my response.
“The location of the wedding was on the electronic contract you signed.” She paused. “If you cared to read it, that is.”
Curse words. But honestly, who reads those things? “I didn’t notice that. Which is totally my fault, but I can’t do the centerpieces if the wedding is in Rhode Island. They’ll take me weeks to create ... and I would need to be there the whole time. And I’d need a kitchen ... and all the supplies.”
“I’ll see to the arrangements.” Ms. Garrity cleared her throat. “Though perhaps Ms. Aker will understand if you need to back out because of extenuating circumstances.” Had I imagined it, or was there a touch of hope in her voice?
I glanced at Ashlee for an answer, but she only shrugged. “Can you hold a moment, Ms. Garrity?” I asked.
The woman exhaled sharply. “Of course.”
I lowered the phone, hastily pressing mute, before sending Ashlee a pleading look. “What would you do?”
She shook her head, obviously unwilling to influence me.
I tilted my head back in disbelief. “You know how bad I am at making decisions.”
Her lips were firmly pressed together.
She huffed. “Fine. Since you already committed to it, if it were me, I’d do it.”
I stared at her, unblinking. “You’d just fly across the country to somewhere you’ve never been, all by yourself, at Christmas?”
She flung up a hand and gave a sardonic laugh. “Then, don’t do it. At least that way, we can spend Christmas together.”
I tapped my curled fingers mindlessly on my bottom lip, weighing my options. I refused to let Ashlee sacrifice Christmas with her family, flying home on her own dime, only to dry my tears and keep my thoughts from perseverating on Cody—on why he’d left me and how different this Christmas was supposed to be.
No. As it stood, I was going to be alone, so I might as well be somewhere that would prevent me from having to attend my family’s annual Christmas party, ease Ashlee’s unnecessary guilt, and render a healthy dose of CPR to my struggling social media account. Besides, it would be good to be away from all the memories that threatened to make this the most miserable Christmas in the history of my life—and that included the one when I got food poisoning from those darn eclairs and ended up in the hospital on IVs. My stomach protested at the memory.
I met Ashlee’s watchful stare. “I’m going to go.”
“If you’re positive.”
“I am.” I pressed the mute button. “Ms. Garrity?”
There was no answer.
“Ms. Garrity?” I said again before noticing it was still on mute. Hitting the button, I tried a third time. “Ms. Garrity?”
“I’ll be able to do it after all.”
“I heard the conversation. You didn’t actually mute the phone—at least not until a moment ago.”
“Oh.” My face grew hot with embarrassment. So much for a good first impression, though, honestly, I’d pretty much sabotaged any chance of that from the get go. I drew in a deep, calming breath. “I’ll need three weeks to complete all the gingerbread houses.”
“I can get your flight out for December first?”
My palms grew clammy on the phone gripped in my hand. “Okay.”
“And your return flight?”
I hesitated. “Sometime after Christmas would be ideal, if that isn’t too long.”
“I’ll double-check with Nikki, but I’m assuming that would be fine. How about, for now, we say the morning of the twenty-seventh?”
The lump forming in my throat attempted to thwart me. “That will work.”
“Wonderful. If you could reply to the other questions in my email, I will send the itinerary as soon as I discuss this with Nikki and book the tickets. Good day, Ms. Cook.” A click sounded, and the words Call Ended flashed briefly on the screen before it dimmed to black.
“Are you sure about this?” Ashlee asked, pulling my blank stare from the phone. “Because you don’t look very sure.”
I pasted a smile onto my lips. “Oh, I am. It’s going to be the perfect distraction.”
It was official. I’d spend Christmas in Newport, Rhode Island.
What had I done?
The Los Angeles sun shone like it forgot it was nearly December. I could get used to the idea of no snow, but the eighty-degree weather was a little harder to accept. Not that I was mourning the freezing temps in Rhode Island, but it felt strange blasting the car’s AC when Christmas was just around the corner.
My stomach grumbled as I drove past the Thai place that opened last week. Reports were that it was worth the twenty-minute line, but I was eager to get back to the office. I had a few things to finalize before my two o’clock meeting, so eating would have to wait. Again.
The parking lot was relatively empty, but considering it was noon on a Friday, I assumed my fellow employees were actually satiating their hunger or had taken off early for the weekend. I nabbed a spot close to the front, grabbed my laptop bag from the passenger seat, and shut the car door.
“Hey, Landon!” Shawna beeped the car fob to her white Audi Coupe and flashed her attractive smile. “Are you coming back from lunch?”
I groaned inwardly at her approach. Her knack for arriving at the same time as me was growing suspicious. This was the third time this week. “No. I went to the Planning Commission hearings.”
She lifted her sunglasses when she reached me and rested them atop her head. “That sounds thrilling.”
“Extremely.” I gestured toward the building, hoping to end this delightful parking lot chat as soon as possible. “You headed in?”
“I am.” Shawna’s high heels clicked on the pavement at a slow, deliberate pace.
I didn’t have time for this.
“So, do you have plans for the weekend?” Shawna asked, sending me a sideways glance.
“I have my sister’s wedding in a couple of weeks, so I’m hoping to get ahead on a few work things.”
She stepped in front of me, forcing me to stop mid-step or risk bowling her over. Her fingers brushed along my arm. “Why don’t you let me show you a good time? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Did all beautiful women think a touch and a slight pout would get them whatever they wanted? My thoughts involuntarily turned to Eliza.
How I used to be putty in her hands whenever she’d look at me like Shawna was looking at me now. Unfortunately for Shawna, I’d learned my lesson. “In that case, you’ll have to excuse me for being dull. I have work to do.”
Hoping to avoid an awkward elevator ride, I entered the lobby and took the stairs to the fourth floor.
When I strolled into the office, Anne gave me a bright smile from the front desk. Her hair looked different. Shorter, maybe? Or darker?
“How’d the hearing go, Mr. Aker?”
“We got approved.”
“I’m not the least bit surprised. Oh, here.” She handed me a sticky note. “Roger Carrigan called and said he needed to talk to you as soon as you got back.”
I glanced down at the neon-green square with a number jotted on it. Why would Roger want to talk to me? I usually heard from the Carrigans’ real estate manager or Frank, the head general counsel attorney, but rarely ever from one of the Carrigans. “Thanks.”
I started toward my office but paused. “You did something with your hair,” I said, hoping I was right.
She ran her fingers through her short bob, the corners of her eyes wrinkling with her smile. “I did. Those gray hairs were stealing all my thunder. I might be a grandma, but I don’t want to look like I am.”
“It looks great,” I said with a wink.
Her cheeks rounded, a red color filling them, and she batted a hand toward me. “Oh, Mr. Aker. You’re too kind.”
When I stepped into my office, I dropped my laptop onto the desk and glanced around the small space. Those who strived for a corner office had obviously not seen this one. The view was a definite plus, considering it overlooked a well-manicured grass area with palm trees, but it was really the only benefit. The large desk took up most of the space, and because of the floor-to-ceiling windows along two of the walls, the bookshelf was crammed against the only free wall and prevented the door from fully opening. Thankfully, I wouldn’t be here much longer. Only a week or two past the New Year most likely, and with Nikki’s wedding and Christmas coming up, I would have a small break from the confining space.
I closed the door and dialed the number Anne had handed me.
“This is Roger.”
“Mr. Carrigan, it’s Landon Aker—general counsel.”
“Oh, yes. Thanks for getting back to me. How’d the hearing go this morning? Are we on track?”
“They approved the building permit.”
“Wonderful. That’s great news.” He cleared his throat. “I know you’re right in the middle of all the legal stuff with this new build, but we’re going to have Peter Jennings take it from here.”
I stilled. “Peter? Isn’t he in New York right now?”
“He was, but now he’s headed there to take over for you.”
I paused, my mind grasping at how to respond and whether I should have been worried about this unforeseen intervention. “Can I ask the reason I’m being taken off the project?”
“Don’t worry. It’s not anything you did. We need you in Boston for the Carrigan Enterprise annual board meeting. As our newest attorney on the general counsel, we feel it would be valuable for you to attend.”
The tension in my shoulders lessened. “Of course.”
“Perfect. If you could get Peter up to speed on where everything stands this next week, we’ll get you a return flight to Newport for this Friday, the eighth. Does that work?”
“When’s the board meeting?”
My arrival seemed a bit premature. “Should I prepare something to present? Or—”
“Nope. Just be there.”
Something felt off. “I’d be happy to take on another project in the meantime.”
“Actually, with Kade and Nikki’s wedding on the twenty-second, we’ve asked Peter to see to any real estate transactions and development issues that arise until after Christmas.”
My jaw hung open. “But, Mr. Carr—”
“We insist, Landon.” His tone was kind but unwavering.
That was over two weeks off of work with nothing but one meeting thrown in the middle. I stared blankly at my office door, trying to think of a response when my blood was now boiling. This wasn’t some well-deserved vacation. This was orchestrated meddling. And I knew exactly who was to blame: Kade. “Thank you, Mr. Carrigan,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’m sure my sister will appreciate your generosity.”
“Well then, we’ll see you in Boston ... and for the wedding.”
My hand gripped the phone. “I look forward to it.”
The moment the line went silent, I dialed Kade.
“Hey, Landon. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
I set the phone on speaker and placed it on my desk to avoid taking out my irritation on it. “Did you know your uncle called me today?”
“Really?” There wasn’t an ounce of surprise in his amused tone. “Which one?”
“Roger. But that’s not the point,” I growled. “The point is, he insisted I abandon my current project to return to Newport—until after Christmas—for a single board meeting.”
Kade chuckled. “It sounds to me like you just got yourself a few weeks off, and you’re choosing to be upset about it.”
“What I’m upset about is that my idiot brother-in-law—”
“Soon-to-be brother-in-law,” Kade corrected.
My knuckles turned white where they pressed against the desk. “Sorry. My idiot, soon-to-be brother-in-law pulled his entitled, family-connection card to force me home.”
“I don’t see the problem.”
“You wouldn’t.” My laugh was full of anything but humor. “You’re an idiot, Kade.”
“Three uses of idiot already? You are mad.”
I paced the tight space right behind my desk, shaking my head in disbelief. “Yes, I’m mad.”
Kade cleared his throat. “Okay, I get it. You’re not thrilled with my interfering, but I didn’t do it for you. I did it for Nikki. She misses you. You’ve only come to see us once in the four weeks you’ve been in SoCal. So yes, in hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever come up with, but had I asked you, would you have gone home earlier?”
“No! I have a job. You know, one of those things common people do to earn money by showing up at work.”
“Because the prospect of a vacation is obviously a high-stress situation for you, I’m going to forgive you for implying that I don’t work, when, as we speak, I’m on my way to a client meeting.”
“Is this meeting happening on a golf course?”
Kade chuckled again. “Eighteen holes of golf presents a lot of opportunity for talking business.”
I released a heavy breath, unwilling to let him distract me from my irritation. “I can’t believe you had me pulled from the project. Now, everyone in your family’s company is going to think I’m being given special privileges because I’m related to you. That I only got hired because of our connection.” I paused. “And I probably did, but I don’t need others to be constantly reminded of the fact.”
Kade didn’t answer immediately. “I’m sorry, man. I should have gone about this a different way. I won’t do it again ... most likely, anyway.”
He huffed. “Fine. I’ll refrain from using my entitled card to get you a much-needed vacation in the future. But since the damage is already done, will you stop griping and try to enjoy it?”
I refused to respond to that.
“Come on, Landon. How else am I supposed to measure up to Nikki’s favorite person without going to such great lengths for her happiness?”
Despite myself, I smiled. “You’ll always live in my shadow, Kade. Just get used to it.”
He chuckled. “So we’re good?” There was a smile behind his voice.
“No. But for Nikki’s sake, I’ll try not to kill you when I see you this weekend.”
“That’s an acceptable arrangement, and I thank you for it.”
It looked like I was going home to Newport earlier than I’d expected.
Baked gingerbread pieces filled every surface of the massive kitchen, the oversized dining table, and the three small tables in the living room. Some were on cookie sheets, but the bigger pieces were laid on wax paper with smaller pieces stacked on top of them. When I’d arrived in Newport a week ago, I’d thought the rental Irene Garrity had arranged for me was a bit excessive for one person’s accommodations. But now I was grateful for all the space—at least when it came to baking.
The main part of the house where I was staying—the second and third floor—had a clean, modern look, like those attractive brothers on HGTV had remodeled it. The kitchen was massive and was separated from the large open space, which included a dining area and the family room, by a spacious island that could probably sit almost as many people as the over-sized table if there were more barstools. With the considerable size of everything, I felt a lot like Goldilocks who’d been put up in Papa Bear’s swanky bachelor pad. Even the laundry room and second-floor bathroom were the stuff out of a magazine spread.
Upstairs, there were two decent-sized bedrooms, a bathroom, and a master suite. I’d almost opted to take the first room at the top of the stairs because the master was a bit intimidating, but there hadn’t been a lock on the door, and there was a closet full of men’s clothes, which was pretty unsettling. Besides, if I needed to use the bathroom in the night, I didn’t want to have to walk down a long, dark hallway to get there.
Needless to say, as nice as the place was, I didn’t feel at ease in it by myself. It might have helped to know if someone was renting out the first-floor apartment, since we shared an enclosed stairway that connected both front doors, but, then again, I guess that would depend on who the tenant was. So far, I hadn’t heard or seen anyone come or go, and I’d been paying attention.
As it was, every noise made me pause, and when it came time to go to bed, I kept several of the lights on as I slept. I mean, I also did those things at Ashlee’s when she was gone, but my nerves seemed more volatile here. So volatile, in fact, that I hadn’t listened to a true-crime podcast since my arrival. It was all holiday music and feel-good Christmas movies for me.
I sat on the large sectional in my yoga pants, oversized sweatshirt, and bright-green-and-red-striped fuzzy socks, puzzling together the gingerbread cabin pieces that filled the coffee table’s surface. The hand-drawn blueprint stationed on the floor next to the table helped me get my bearings, and I shifted the large, dense, gingerbread shape in my hand to resemble the correct placement. Once I confirmed the pieces for the cabin fit together correctly, I could move on to assembling all the structures. Which meant, if I started tomorrow, I was two days ahead of schedule. Or was today Friday? Either way, the benefits of isolation and the motivation of a looming deadline had been good to me.
I gave a heavy blink to refocus my strained eyes before realizing the ache wasn’t from my intense focus, but the dimming light. The oranges and blues of the sunset outside were rapidly fading from the darkening sky. Quickly, I switched on another light and moved to the sliding door that led out to the second-floor deck overlooking the street. The handle was locked, and a thick wooden dowel rested on the lower track.
Refusing to dwell on how clearly someone from the street outside could see in, I threw the heavy curtains shut and moved to the nearby window, where I did the same—checked the lock and lowered the blinds—before moving to the others. Will Smith’s character in I Am Legend would have found me a formidable ally with how efficiently I could secure a room at dusk. But I didn’t want to think about that movie right now.
“Jingle bells. Jingle bells.” My voice was artificially loud, which didn’t help with my wavering pitch. “Jingle all the way.”
I thought to check the rest of the house, but since I’d gone nowhere today—or all week, for that matter—and the image of apocalyptic zombies holding jingle bells was now central in my mind, I decided it would be best to wait until I Facetimed Ashlee tonight to do my thorough before-bed house check. Besides, though I couldn’t see it from where I stood, I was absolutely positive the front door to my unit remained bolted. I’d checked it more than enough times to quiet my obsessive tendencies.
Flinging myself onto the overstuffed leather sectional, I flipped on the TV and resumed streaming White Christmas to fill the unnerving quiet and my wandering imagination. When my favorite part came on—where Judy convinces Phil to fake their engagement—I set down the gingerbread pieces, tucked my feet beneath me, and leaned back into the soft leather. This scene was not only comedic genius, it was romance at its finest.
After a few minutes, a distant sound drew my attention, and I paused the movie. In the quiet, I could hear the blood whooshing through my body, but nothing else. Stupid big houses and all their sounds. I lifted the remote to press play when the bang of a door closing stopped me. My pulse quickened. “Calm down,” I whispered to myself. “It must be the tenants downstairs.”
Heavy footsteps ascending the stairs sent me to my feet. Why would the neighbors be coming upstairs? Had they just arrived and mistaken the unit? That must be it. Or perhaps it was a misdirected food delivery person.
Keys jingled outside the door. Then, to my complete horror, the sound of metal on metal, like a key in the lock, nearly stopped my heart. The lock clicked.
I was as good as dead.
Adrenaline now pumping through me, I scanned the room. I needed somewhere to hide. Now. But the open floorplan gave me few options. Without another thought, I dove behind the far side of the sectional, near the wall, only to realize this was probably the worst place to be. I was literally cornered with no way out. Had I learned nothing from all those true-crime podcasts and documentaries? I should have attempted a drop from the second-floor balcony. That, or hiding in the kitchen would have given me a better chance at escape. Not only was there the large island that could have acted as a natural barrier, but it was closer to the only real exit. I was too scrawny a thing to put up much of a fight, but I was quick.
The door creaked opened, and heavy steps followed.
“What the ...?” a man’s whispered voice traveled through the large space.
I scrunched down further and quieted my shallow breathing.
If only I’d had the sense to grab my phone. Or knew where it was. Had I left it on the coffee table? Or maybe the—
Clomp. Clomp. Clomp. His footsteps paused, and I resisted every pulling fiber inside of me to peek around the couch’s edge to size up my captor. How many of those true-crime victims had made that novice mistake? I would not give my hiding place away. I would not become a statistic.
“Hello?” the deep voice boomed, and something heavy dropped that made me flinch. A bag of tools to dispose of the body—my body? “Is someone here?”
I swallowed, unwilling to fall prey to the tactic of an inviting tone. It was always the nice, unsuspecting person who was the perpetrator. Well ... not always ... or really even often, though that didn’t mean it wasn’t the case here. I’d recently heard of a man that rented out his home, only to fall upon his victims at night. The police had caught him, hadn’t they?
I was growing dizzy from shallow breaths and fear.
The man started walking again. His steps were slow and calculated. Dangerous. Was he coming toward me? I couldn’t tell with how the sound reverberated off the walls. This was not how I wanted to die. I mean, I didn’t really have a preferred way of dying, besides living to old age and passing in my sleep, but if it had to be from something else, this certainly wouldn’t be my choice. I squeezed my eyes shut, gripping the remote in my shaking hand. The remote. Perhaps I could throw it at him. Or maybe somewhere else as a distraction so I could make a run for it. It was an abysmal plan, but I didn’t have a better option.
The sound of the wooden stairs creaking ignited a flicker of hope, preventing me from chucking the remote across the room. Was the man going upstairs? Another stair creaked, then another, and another. He must have been searching for me. Knowing I had limited time, I glanced around the side of the couch to be sure I was alone, then I quietly maneuvered my way out from behind it. The stairs leading up were across the room from the ones leading to the first-floor entrance—to outside—and I kept my eyes on them as I tiptoed toward salvation. Thank heavens I was wearing socks and was basically elf-sized.
Another creak halted me mid-step. Had the sound come from above or the staircase where I was headed? The doorway downstairs faced the kitchen, so I couldn’t be certain from where I stood. A shiver of fear shot through me. What if I had been mistaken? What if the man was waiting on these stairs for me, knowing I would try to escape? I’d have to make a drop from the balcony. Backing away with silent steps, I tightened my fists at my sides, hoping to stave off the trembling that had consumed my whole body.
A voice barked from somewhere behind me, and like a deer in flight, I took off, away from it, toward the kitchen. Glimpsing the iron skillet I’d used to make my dinner, I grabbed it and spun to face my pursuer. Except, there was no pursuer. Confused, my gaze landed on Bing Crosby’s character moving across the screen and then shifted to the remote in my hand. Instantly, I realized my grave error and dropped it on the counter. As hurried footsteps made their way from one of the stairways, I tried to keep my tunneling vision from blackening. Ashlee had always teased that my spirit animal was a fainting goat, and with the way my legs tightened beneath me, I wondered if she was onto something. But now was not the time to keel over. I needed to fight.
Skillet extended, I glanced back and forth between the door that led to the first floor and the wooden banister that led up, waiting for the man to appear from one of them. When a large form barreled down the third-floor stairs, I shifted my body toward him. “Don’t come any closer!”
His wide eyes landed on me, and to my utter amazement, I found an exceptionally handsome face staring at me. He wore a heavy winter coat, and a gray beanie covered all but a few ends of his dark hair. A well-manicured beard somehow made his prominent jawline stronger. More deadly.
“Who are you?” he asked, putting his hands up like I held a gun and not kitchenware. “And why are you in my house?”
“Your house?” My resolve wavered some, and I lowered the skillet a touch. But what if he was lying? What if that was some kind of ploy to get me to let my guard down? There was no unwritten rule that an attractive man couldn’t also be a psychopathic murderer. In fact, the trait would probably serve him well. I lifted the iron skillet higher. “Prove it.”
“Are you some sort of squatter?” His gaze dropped to the island between us, overflowing with gingerbread pieces. “That bakes in other people’s kitchens?”
My head drew back at the strange comment. “No. But I’m not telling you who I am until you prove to me you own the place ... and that you aren’t some serial killer who lures young, unsuspecting women into your rental properties.”
“This is not a rental property. I only rent out the first floor.”
I quirked a brow. “Then where have you been the last week?”
“In LA—for work.”
It had to have been more than a coincidence that he claimed to have been in Southern California. He was definitely a stalker of sorts, attempting to get me to comply with commonalities. “Then why are you here?” I asked, keeping my skillet aimed at him.
“How is it I’m the one doing the explaining when you’re the one in my house?”
“You haven’t proven it’s your house yet ... or that you aren’t a killer.”
“A killer?” he spluttered, shaking his head in impressively well-acted disbelief. “I have the key.”
I shrugged. “So do I.”
He tossed his head back. “This is ridiculous. How did you get a key ... unless ...” His gaze moved slowly across the haphazard stacks of gingerbread, then returned to mine. The crease in his brow deepened, though his arms remained up. “Are you the woman my sister hired to make the centerpieces for her wedding?”
My throat went dry. “What’s your sister’s name?”
His teeth clenched. “Nikki Aker.”
The heat that had been pulsing through my body congregated in my cheeks. “You’re Nikki’s brother?”
He shook his head, and his nostrils flared.
“You’re not?” I asked, suddenly confused.
I took a step toward him, the skillet still extended. “Then why did you shake your head no?”
“Can I put my arms down now?”
“Call her,” I said, unable to ignore the nagging voice inside me that needed further evidence of his innocence. “I need to know you’re really who you say you are.”
He stared at me before apparently realizing I was serious. His eyes flicked upward. “Permission to grab my phone?”
I gave a slow nod, ready to scramble to safety if he pulled out a knife or a gun instead. Could cast iron deflect bullets?
With overly intentional movements, he reached inside his coat pocket and retrieved a phone. I didn’t miss the mischievous twinkle in his eyes, and I gripped the handle of the skillet more tightly, prepared for trouble.
“Siri, call Nikki,” he said.
“Calling Nikki,” the mechanical female voice responded.
A faint ringing sounded. He put the phone on speaker, wedged it onto a vacant spot on the counter between us, and then crossed his arms and glared at it.
The ringing stopped. “Hey, Landon.” The feminine voice was definitely Nikki’s, and my stomach knotted. Why had I insisted he call her?
“Hey, sis.” The man’s voice was dry and humorless. “Did you, by chance, let someone stay at my place?”
Her side of the line went quiet. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, I came home to find my house filled to the brim with gingerbread and a young”—he glanced at me—“what did you call yourself again? Oh, yeah ... a young, unsuspecting woman threatening my life with a frying pan.”
“Quinn? Oh, the poor thing.” There was sincere sympathy in Nikki’s voice. “You must have scared her half to death.”
Humiliation flooded over me, and I lowered the heavy skillet, finally convinced this man spoke the truth.
“I didn’t realize you’d be home already,” Nikki said.
“Kade hasn’t confessed his interference?” he grumbled.
“He did. I just didn’t realize when you were flying in.”
A man, who I assumed was Nikki’s fiancé, spoke in the background, though it was hard to distinguish what he said. The muffled sound of Nikki’s answer made it clear she wasn’t talking to Landon. “He’s there.” She paused, and the man’s muffled voice came again. “Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “Sorry about that. Kade needed an update. And I’m so happy you’re there! I can’t wait to see you Monday.”
Landon’s jaw clenched. “I thought you were flying in tomorrow morning.”
“That had been the plan, but there was a mishap with the wedding dress. They’ll have it fixed bright and early Monday morning, and we’ll be on our way as soon as we have it.”
Landon didn’t answer but pulled off his beanie and ran a hand through his dark hair that currently stuck out in odd directions.
“I feel so bad that you just barged in on Quinn like that. I meant to give you both a head’s up that she was there before you arrived.”
“And it just slipped your mind?” Landon’s irritation was palpable.
“I guess so. I’ve got a lot going on right now. Is she there with you?” Nikki asked. “Can you put her on?”
His gaze locked on mine, and he gestured toward the phone with a stiff hand.
I stepped closer to the kitchen island between us, the skillet dangling in my still-trembling hand. “Hey, Nikki. It’s Quinn.”
“Oh, Quinn. I am so sorry about what happened. I hope Landon didn’t scare you too badly.”
“It’s not a big deal,” I said, ever the pacifist—unless I was threatening strange men in their own house with an iron skillet. “And I’m happy to stay somewhere else now that he’s here.”
“No. Don’t be silly. His house is big enough for you both, and it sounds like you’re already using the space. It’d be a pain to move all of your stuff now.”
It certainly would be, but Landon’s scowl made the effort a preferable option. Besides, I couldn’t sleep in the same house as a man I didn’t know—despite how the thought of his being close by was oddly comforting now that I was pretty sure he wouldn’t murder me in my sleep. I swallowed my trepidation. “Really, it wouldn’t be an inconvenience—”
“I’ll sleep in the first-floor apartment,” Landon interrupted, leaning toward the phone. “Unless you’ve also rented it out without telling me.”
“Nope.” Nikki’s voice was light and cheery. “But remember, the groomsmen are going to be staying there the week of the wedding, so we might need to reassess the arrangements when I get there.”
Landon grunted his answer.
“When was the last time I told you how much I love you?” Nikki said to her brother. “Because you are my favorite person in this whole world.”
Kade’s muffled voice returned, his tone teasing, though his precise words were still undistinguishable.
Nikki laughed again. “Fine. A close second to Kade. But I couldn’t do this without your help.”
The crease on Landon’s brow disappeared, and his expression softened. “I’m glad you’re aware.”
“Speaking of,” Nikki continued, “it’s my understanding that Quinn has never been to Rhode Island. Make sure she doesn’t spend all her time working. She needs to see Newport at Christmastime. It’s like a dream, Quinn. You’ll love it.”
In a blink, Landon’s scowl was back in full force.
My head started shaking before I could even form an excuse. I had no intention of forcing Landon to take me sightseeing around Newport, especially when he’d made it blatantly obvious he didn’t want to. It was bad enough I had commandeered his entire house and forced him to the apartment downstairs. “I actually have lots to do if I’m going to get these gingerbread houses done in time, but thanks for the thought.”
“When you need a break, please take it. Landon is happy to show you around our hometown. Aren’t you, Landon?”
He didn’t meet my gaze this time. “Of course.” Though he’d agreed, his tone really said: ‘I’d prefer the crazy woman put me out of my misery with the skillet.’
“Well then, I’ll come see you both as soon as Kade and I arrive. In the meantime, Quinn, let Landon know if you need anything. He’s the best of the best.”
“And not a murderer?” I asked, mostly joking.
Nikki laughed. “Definitely not a murderer.”
He crossed his arms over his broad chest. “We’ll see if that changes when you and Kade get here.”
“Oh, Landon. Play nice in front of our guest. We wouldn’t want her thinking you’re a disgruntled host.”
“Too late for that,” I teased, only to realize it came out sounding more sincere than playful. This time, I avoided looking at Landon.
In the quiet that followed my comment, I could make out Kade’s voice telling Nikki they’d arrived wherever they were headed.
“Okay,” Nikki said. “I need to go, you two. But try to have a little fun, and we’ll talk soon. Love you, Landon. Bye, Quinn!” She made a kiss sound into the phone, and then the line went silent.
Hesitantly, I lifted my gaze to Landon’s less-than-pleased expression. “I’m sorry I thought you were a murderer.” I paused. “And I’m sorry for taking over your house. Had I known—”
“It’s not your fault.” He said it as a fact, not a reassurance.
“But I feel bad. I’m really fine to sleep in your rental downstairs.”
His gaze scanned the cluttered counter again, then drifted to the table. “Won’t you need to spend most days in my kitchen anyway?”
Of course he’d want to be downstairs where I couldn’t infringe on his privacy. “It doesn’t need to be this one, just a kitchen. Like I said, it wouldn’t be too hard to bring the stuff down—”
“Really, it’s fine.” He shoved his beanie back on his head. “I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.”
Unsure how hard I should press the matter, I returned the skillet to the overflowing sink and followed him to the door.
A large duffel bag was on the floor—the object that had caused the thud when he’d first walked in, apparently—and he picked it up and flung it over his shoulder effortlessly, like some sort of dashing sailor about to bid farewell. He paused at the threshold. “I’ll make sure the front door is locked. I’d hate for some unsuspecting robber to meet his untimely demise by frying pan.” His tone was flat, unamused even, but there was a peculiar spark in his eyes, and an unexpected trill of pleasure shot through me.
“That’s a good idea,” I said dumbly, still reeling from my odd reaction to him.
His heavy snow boots echoed in the narrow stairwell.
“Night,” I called when he reached the apartment door at the bottom.
He glanced up at me, and I thought I glimpsed a small flicker of a smile. “Night, Quinn.”
I shut the door with more force than was necessary. What had just happened—the strange encounter; the attractive, disgruntled man; and that fleeting feeling brought on by a simple look?
And what would Cody have thought of the situation?
It didn’t matter.
Cody had given up any rights to my heart when he shattered it a year ago.
I gave a resolute nod, as though that would convince my heart that Cody didn’t still hold all its broken pieces in his grasp, and bolted the door behind me.