Excerpt: The Trouble With Christmas


If Madison had a gun, she’d shoot out the sound system pumping “Jingle Bells” through her office speakers. Instead, she bit off Rudolph’s chocolate head and pointed a finger at the brightly colored, foil-wrapped Santa on her desk. “You’re next, big guy.”

It was only November 29, and she was already sick to death of the nauseating carols hijacking the radio stations, the migraine-inducing Christmas lights that used up enough energy to power a small country, and don’t get her started on the crowds—people running around buying presents they couldn’t afford, racking up credit card debt that would make them want to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge come January.

Her attitude was probably the reason why her assistant decided today was a double-chocolate day. She’d worked with Madison at the resort developer Hartwell Enterprises for the last five years and knew the over-the-top holiday hoopla made Madison . . . cranky. She didn’t know why, no one did, and Madison planned to keep it that way. To keep the past exactly where it belonged, in the past.

No Boo hoo, woe is me for Madison Lane. She was a "dust yourself off, pick yourself up by the bootstraps" kind of gal. And that was exactly what she’d done ten years ago. At eighteen, she’d kicked off the dirt of the small Southern town she’d grown up in and never looked back. Moved to the big city where no one knew your name, cared where you came from, or who your parents were.

She loved her life in New York. She had the best boss, the best job, and two of the most amazing best friends. Yep, her world was . . . almost perfect. And as soon as she figured out a way to get rid of her boss’s nephew, Harrison Hartwell the Third, with his fake tan and fake British accent, it would be perfect. Six months ago, playing the family card, Harrison had slithered past her defenses. But now she saw him for what he was: a slick freeloader who wanted her job.

But her job was safe. The guy was an idiot. He’d tried to steam roll a resort development deal with the small town of Christmas, Colorado, past her—an investment that would have bankrupted Joe, her boss. But four days ago, as VP of finance, she’d presented a twenty-page argument against the deal. Her report, along with Joe’s respect for her opinion, had paid off, and the negotiations ended.

Take that, Harrison, she thought, biting off Rudolph’s leg.

The alarm on her watch beeped, ending her five-minute-endorphin-releasing therapy. Wrapping up the half-eaten chocolate reindeer, she tucked him in the drawer along with Santa and got back to work on the budget she was presenting this afternoon. Thanks to the elimination of the deal with Christmas, Hartwell’s financial future looked a whole lot brighter. She’d been practically giddy when she deleted the town from the budget. And it had nothing to do with her dislike of small towns or the holiday it was named after. She never let emotions interfere with business.

She frowned when a high priority e-mail from her best friend, Vivian Westfield, a reporter for the online Daily News, popped up on her screen requesting an immediate Skype conference call with their mutual best friend, Skylar Davis, a trust-fund baby who was in Belize, presumably saving the world again.

Madison had met Skye and Vivi on their first day of college, and they’d been inseparable ever since. With her father dead ten years now, not that he’d been much of a father, her friends were the closest thing to family Madison had.

She logged in and waited for the connection, trying not to worry about the reason for the call. They knew how she felt about taking personal time at work. Then again, that had never stopped them in the past. As far as they were concerned, especially Skye, Madison was always at work.

And that, Madison decided, was probably the reason for the ASAP call—her Thanksgiving no-show. Vivi had ratted her out. But Madison had a good reason for skipping the holiday. She’d been working on her report to end the negotiations with Christmas. And Vivi hadn’t sounded overly upset when she’d bailed on her.

Vivi popped up on the left side of the screen, sitting on her couch and looking disgustingly gorgeous for a 9:00 a.m. call in a black tank top, her long, chocolate brown hair falling over her shoulders as she leaned closer, narrowing her eyes at Madison. “You okay?” she asked in her raspy voice that left men panting at her feet.

Madison frowned, wondering why she asked, then realized it was probably because of all the hours she’d had been putting in at work. “Great, better than great, actually. Just going over the budget one last time, and next year’s bonus looks like a sure . . .” She trailed off when her best friend winced.

“What’s with the face?” Madison asked, pushing her black-framed glasses to the top of her head. She didn’t need glasses. She’d started wearing them when she realized men thought with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and ridiculously curvy body that she was a bimbo. She wasn’t. She was smart. “And speaking of faces,” she said, taking a closer look, “there’s something about yours. You look different. Kind of glowy and . . . Wow, you look happy.”             

Vivi blushed. Weird. Vivi never blushed.

And then, obviously as a means of distracting Madison, she said, “You look different, too. What’s with the lipstick? You never wear lipstick.”

She didn’t. Her lips were full enough without drawing attention to them. She hadn’t worn lipstick since junior high, when the senior boys told her all the disgusting things they’d like her to do with her mouth. She’d known it was because they thought she was like her mother, but knowing that hadn’t made it any easier.

She touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip. Chocolate. Taking a Kleenex from the box on the corner of her desk, she wiped her mouth.

“Better. Brown’s not your color.”

Okay, Vivi’d distracted her long enough, but before Madison could question her about the wincing thing, and the blushing, Skye appeared in the upper right of her screen. Her toffee-colored curly hair more wild than usual, she looked like Malibu Barbie sitting cross-legged in a “Save the Planet” T-shirt on a bed surrounded with mosquito netting.

“Are you okay?” Skye asked, her eyes filled with concern.

“Y’all are making me nervous. What . . . ” Madison's mouth fell open as a half-naked man with incredible arms, broad shoulders, and a sculpted chest walked behind Vivi’s green couch. Vivi tipped her head back and followed him out of view, devouring him with her eyes.

“Move your screen! Follow that man,” Skye demanded.

“Sweet baby Jesus. Who. Is. That?” Madison tugged on the black turtleneck beneath her boxy blazer.

Eyes sparkling, face flushed, Vivi . . . giggled. Madison gaped at her. Vivi "Kick-Ass" Westfield did not giggle. The body sauntered back into view, holding a container of milk in one hand while his other hand caressed Vivi’s shoulder. A champagne-colored Stetson lowered to the side of her face as the large hand left her shoulder and reached for the screen. Their best friend disappeared from view. They heard a man’s deep, sexy laugh and Vivi’s breathy moan.

“Hey, not fair,” Skye complained.

Nope, it wasn’t. Whenever Madison mourned her almost nonexistent love life, she comforted herself with the knowledge that her workaholic friend Vivi didn’t have one either. They lived vicariously through Skye. But even Skye would be considered a nun by today’s standards.

Vivi reappeared on the screen, hiking up the strap of her tank top and smoothing her hair.

“Spill,” Madison said. “How . . . where . . .when?” The why she knew--the man’s body was to die for.

Skye cleared her throat. Vivi’s moony smile faded. “Right. Okay. Maddie,” Vivi began, but that’s as far as she got.

“Sweetie,” Skye leaned forward, “we have something to tell you. Just remember, this too shall pass.”

Vivi sighed, crossing her arms.

“Bad things happen to good people,” spouted Skye, who flitted through life like a butterfly wearing rose-colored glasses. “It always looks darker before the sun comes out.

When a door shuts, a—”

“Enough already, we don’t have all day,” Vivi interrupted her. “Maddie—”

“Wait.” Skye held up a hand. “Take a minute and breathe, Maddie, slow and deep. Find your happy place.”

“I’m in my happy place. Tell me already.” Madison’s left eye began to twitch.

Vivi held up the front page of the New York Times, pointing out the headline: The Grinch Who Killed Christmas.

“Way to go, Grinch,” Madison murmured, her gaze dropping to the woman in the picture. She leaned in to get a better look. Her heart flip-flopped in her chest. “Is that me? That can’t be me.”

Skye tilted her head. “I know. You kind of look like a serial killer, but it is you, sweetie. Sorry.”

“But I-I am not a Grinch, and I didn’t kill Christmas.”

“You kinda are,” Skye said.

“Skye,” Vivi muttered, then redirected her attention to Madison. “It’s because of the resort in Christmas, Colorado, Maddie. They’re blaming you for killing the deal and the town. They’ve got letters from old people and four-year-olds saying it was because of your report Hartwell didn’t go through with the resort.”

“How would they know that? No one called me for a comment.”

“Harrison spoke on behalf of Hartwell.”

Madison groaned. “What did he say?”

“Um, here, I’ll put it up to the screen.”

Scanning the article, Madison stabbed the monitor when she came to Harrison’s name and quote. “Harrison,” she growled her nemesis’s name. “I can’t believe he questioned my numbers, and to the press! My facts are accurate. I quadruple-checked my projections. If we went through with this deal, we’d have gone under.” Stupid small towns and the small-minded people who lived in them. They’d ruined her life once, and she was not about to let them ruin it again. “I’ll sue. They’ll have to print a retraction.”

“If you say the deal won’t fly, it won’t. But honestly, there’s not much you can do about this. They’re putting a spin on the facts, but you are the one who compiled the report, even if Joe signed off on it. Harrison hung you out to dry,” Vivi said.

“So I just have to sit by while they tear my reputation to shreds on the front page of the Times?”

“Yeah, you do. And I hate to tell you, Maddie, but with Christmas less than a month away, a headline like this is going to sell a lot of papers.”

And that was her biggest concern, because Joe didn’t like conflict or negative publicity. If Santa really did exist, he’d be her boss. Unlike Madison, Joe was a people pleaser and had come close to bankrupting the destination firm before she’d come on board. If he read the letters from the little kids and old people, he’d waver. He’d question her report, and Harrison would have the ammunition he needed to reopen the deal.

That was not going to happen, not on her watch.

“What are you going to do?” Skye asked.

“Once I’ve reamed out Harrison for talking to the press, I have to reassure Joe that the negative publicity will have no impact on us whatsoever, and that I stand by the numbers in my report.”

“If you need me, I’ll be on the next plane out of here,” Skye offered.

“And if I can think of an angle to counter this in the Daily News, I will,” Vivi promised.

“Thanks. I love you guys, but I’ll be fine,” Madison said past the fist-sized lump of gratitude in her throat. She really did have the best friends in the world.

“Group hug, it’s time for a group hug.” Skye waved her hands.

At home was okay, but at the office, no way. “I’m not doing a group hug. Someone might walk in, and thanks to the Times, I already look like an idiot.” And that was bothering her more than she let on.

At the disappointed look in Skye’s eyes, Madison gave in, wrapping her arms around the monitor. “Vivi, Hot Bod is welcome to join us.” They laughed and made kissy noises before saying good-bye.

A throat cleared. “Ms. Lane, what are you doing?” Harrison “the Snake” Hartwell asked.

Heat suffused Madison’s cheeks. “Um, I have a bad connection. Wire’s probably loose.” She patted her hands along the back of the monitor.

“It’s wireless.”

She ignored him, sat poker straight in her chair, and lowered her glasses onto her nose. She decided not to say a word about the paper tucked under his arm. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of thinking the article had gotten to her. “What can I do for you, Harrison?”

“My uncle wants to meet with you in the conference room. Have you seen the Times this morning?” he asked in his faux British accent.

She looked him right in his shifty dark eyes. “Of course I have.”

“And you’re not concerned?”

“Why would I be? It’s nothing more than a piece of sensationalist crap. Everyone will have forgotten about it by tomorrow.” She hoped.

“I don’t think my uncle agrees with you, nor do I. As I see it, the only way to combat the negative publicity is to reopen the deal with Christmas.”

Over her dead body. She hit the key to print off her revised budget and the previous one with the resort included. Organizing the papers into a neat pile, she rose from her chair, striding past Harrison.

She walked into the boardroom where her boss stood by the window, his gray suit hanging on his too-thin frame. “Joe.” He turned, his face lined with worry, his eyes tired.

Her heart pinched. He didn’t need this right now. He had enough dealing with Martha, his wife of fifty-five years, who’d been diagnosed with lung cancer not long before Harrison had come on board. Madison had begun to believe it was the reason Joe had hired his nephew in the first place. He wasn’t thinking clearly. And she wasn’t about to let Harrison take advantage of his vulnerability.

“Don’t worry, Joe,” she said, coming to stand beside him. “No one’s going to pay any attention to this.”

“It doesn’t look that way to me, Madison.” He tapped the glass. On the sidewalk below, at least twenty protestors marched in a circle, waving Grinch signs that called for a boycott of Hartwell Enterprises. She couldn’t believe it. With everything going on in the world, people came out to protest this? The paper had only been out a couple of hours. How . . . Her gaze shot to Harrison who gave her a got-you smile.

*  *  *  *  *       

Madison gritted her teeth as the mid-morning sun glared off the snow-covered mountains and the GPS cheerfully informed her she was going in the wrong direction. She wasn’t. The problem was the town of Christmas was off the grid. She’d been lucky to find a map that showed it actually existed. And Harrison had the nerve to insinuate her visitor projections were too low? Like hell they were; no one would be able to find the place.

As the number of protesters grew yesterday, she’d practically had to tackle Joe to stop him from picking up the phone and reopening negotiations. He’d only relented once Madison had offered, as a last-ditch resort, to go to Christmas and turn the public relations nightmare around. She hadn’t figured out exactly how to do that, but she would. Hartwell Enterprises’ survival depended on her.

Harrison had pulled out all the stops in his campaign to be sent in her place. He’d gone from charming to butt- kissing to whining in a New York minute. But three hours later, Joe had conceded that Madison was the best one to convey her findings to the people of Christmas. Of course, she was to do so in such a way that they would understand the decision was in everyone’s best interest.

Which meant she was supposed to charm and cajole the citizens of Christmas and kiss a few babies or two—so not her strong suit. But she’d suck it up and get the job done. Otherwise, she might not have one.

She’d flown out on the red eye, arriving early this morning at the Denver airport, wasting an hour trying to locate the car and driver Harrison offered to arrange for her. Only to find out it had never been ordered. She should’ve known better. Harrison was probably sitting in her office dreaming of her demise, which was highly likely given her limited driving experience and the hairpin curve she’d just rounded in the rented SUV.

The man in the car behind her blasted his horn as he sped by. If she wasn’t terrified of letting go of the wheel, she would’ve flipped him the bird. She needed something to calm her nerves. She slowed down to turn up the radio when “Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child came on.

Madison loved to sing, even though her friends encouraged her not to. No matter what they said, she didn’t believe she sounded that bad. Her confidence returned as she belted out the empowering lyrics. The town of Christmas wouldn’t know what hit them. She’d have them eating out of her hand in no time once she expounded on the evils of bringing corporate America to their sleepy little town.

She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. She’d been on the road for over three hours. According to the map, she should be approaching the turn off to Christmas right about now. Perfect. There it was. If the meeting went as planned, she’d be back on the road by 2:00, which meant the most hair-raising part of her drive would still be in daylight.

Her breath caught as she made the turn. The town, nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains, looked like it belonged in a snow globe. Sunlight sparkled on snow-laden evergreens and danced off the pastel-painted wooden buildings in the distance. It was postcard perfect and exactly the ammunition Madison needed to convince the town that Hartwell Enterprises had done them a favor by backing out of the deal.

She’d focus on the towns’ positive attributes and not the negatives that had made the case against them. Like this road, she thought, her good mood evaporating as her tires spun out beneath her. She slowed to a crawl, a white-knuckled grip on the wheel. Three-quarters of the way down the treacherous hill, as she was about to release the breath she’d been holding, a movement to her right caught her attention. A deer leaped from the woods, darting in front of her. She braked hard, the car fishtailing as she slid along the road.  From behind a cluster of evergreens at the side of the road, a twelve-foot Santa holding a “Welcome to Christmas” sign seemingly sprang up in front of her like a giant jack-in-the-box.

Madison screamed. Her foot mistakenly jumped to the gas instead of the brake. She watched in slow-motion horror as the car kept moving and crashed into the sign. Santa loomed, teetered, then fell on the hood, his maniacal, smiling face leering at her through the cracked windshield.

Her last thought before the airbag slammed into her face was that she’d finally succeeded in killing Santa.