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December 23, 4:30 p.m.
Inside the Colby Agency
How could Christmas be here already? Day after tomorrow. The year had flown by.
Victoria Colby-Camp smiled as she watched the snow float down past the floor-to-ceiling window behind her desk. She loved the snow--loved this city. The flurry of pedestrians rushing to and fro on the street below made her tingle with excitement. Such vibrancy, such diversity, all rolled into one fabulous town.
Her smile stretched into a grin. And any day now she was going to be grandmother. A grandmother! Imagine it. For so many years her son had been lost to her. Just having him home again had been such a blessing. That he'd found a woman who loved him despite his horrific past was simply icing on the cake. But to be blessed with a grandchild, too, Victoria just didn't know how she could possibly be more fortunate. She had worried after last year's failed pregnancy. Thank heavens there had been no problems with this one. Her son deserved every moment of happiness that came his way.
The glittering lights draping every office and shop window twinkled especially bright this evening. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and Victoria couldn't wait to share this special holiday with her family. She had very special presents wrapped and waiting to tuck beneath the tree for Lucas, Jim, Tasha and the coming grandchild. Watching their faces as they opened those gifts and anticipating their surprise had her giddy already and there were still twenty-four hours to go.
She glanced at her wristwatch, the tiny diamonds embellishing the face winking at her like the Christmas lights outside. Lucas had given her this watch for her birthday. Sheput it on every morning and cherished the feel of it against her skin. Her husband wouldn't be home until late this evening. She hoped there were no significant delays with inbound flights with this winter storm surrounding the city. She couldn't bear the idea of spending the holiday without him. The very idea sent an ache through her soul. That he'd had to rush off to Washington so close to the baby's arrival date had worried her, but Lucas had commitments to his work just as she did. She certainly couldn't deny him his work, even if she would prefer to have him all to herself every minute of every day.
Clearly she had grown quite selfish as she moved farther past the mid-century mark.
"Victoria, could I have a moment of your time?"
She turned around to face her personal assistant, Mildred Parker-Ballard, who waited just inside her office door. "Certainly, Mildred. Is everything on schedule for tomorrow?"
Mildred looked even lovelier than usual this morning. She wore her hair in a smartly coiffed pageboy style that flattered her oval face, and Victoria was certain she'd lost a few more pounds. Perhaps it was the recent workouts at the gym she and her new husband had joined. Or maybe it was nothing more than wedded bliss. Mildred and Dr. Austin Ballard had finally gotten married last month, in the very same church where a Ballard grandchild had been christened only weeks before.
Victoria had already ordered a very special christening gown for her first grandchild. She and Mildred had pored over magazines and catalogs for weeks before finding the ones they'd wanted in a local shop, where the gowns were handmade, one-of-a-kind creations.
Nothing was too good for the next Colby generation.
"Unless this storm takes a turn for the worst," Mildred assured, "all will go as planned for tomorrow's Christmas party."
Victoria clasped her hands in front of her. "Excellent." Anticipation welled in her chest. "Think, Mildred, how long it has been since we've had Trevor Sloan and Nick Foster here. I can't believe they were all willing to work their holiday schedules around the agency's Christmas party."
With her eyebrows arched high, Mildred peered at Victoria over her glasses. "Don't go jinxing things, Victoria. We still need the full cooperation of those big silver birds."
Mildred was right about that. Cancelled and delayed flights were par for the course around the holidays in Chicago. Thankfully most were traveling this evening or very early in the morning. Even Angel Parker-Danes and her enigmatic husband Cole were coming. Jack and Katherine Raine. And so many others. Victoria's pulse skipped with the mounting excitement. This would be the very best Christmas ever.
"You've touched base with the caterers one last time?"
Mildred nodded. "And the entertainment folks. In fact, they're coming in tonight after hours to set up their instruments and equipment in the big conference room. Elaine has kindly offered to stay and oversee their work."
Elaine Younger, the agency's receptionist. She was very good at her job. Very pleasant, very dependable. But untouchable in so many other ways. Despite having been with the agency for more than two years already, she hadn't bonded with the rest of the staff as most new members did.
"I worry about that girl," Victoria said, voicing her thoughts to her closest confidant outside her husband.
"She's asked for tomorrow off again," Mildred commented, a note of concern in her tone as well. "She does it every year. It's as if she doesn't care for Christmas in the least. She never volunteers to help put up the decorations, but she's always more than happy to help take them down. I don't understand it."
Decorating the agency was a bit of an undertaking, Victoria wasn't so sure she could blame Elaine or anyone else for avoiding that task. Mildred required perfection. Still, it did seem odd that Elaine had no desire to join in any of the holiday traditions. The rest of the staff had welcomed her warmly when she'd come on board.
There appeared to be no rhyme or reason for her distance. And it certainly wasn't as if Elaine's parents lived far away, requiring that she leave the city early on Christmas Eve in order to be home for the holiday. She clearly didn't want to be a part of the agency's celebration and that saddened Victoria.
"I'll speak with her," Victoria offered.
"Perhaps I can persuade her to drop by for a few minutes anyway."
Mildred lifted her shoulders in a noncommittal shrug. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to try."
A rap on the door drew Victoria's, as well as Mildred's, attention there. Ian Michaels, Victoria's second in command, waited for an invitation to enter. He looked elegant as always in his black suit. Black shirt, black tie. The man always wore black. It was his trademark. Tall, dark and incredibly handsome as the saying went. There was just one difference in Ian's appearance today. He wore a little Rudolph pin on his lapel and the famous reindeer's nose flashed like a beacon. Victoria was entirely certain that one of Ian's children had insisted he wear it.
"Pardon me, ladies," he said in that charismatic voice that kept all the female employees swooning, and Victoria and Mildred were no exceptions. "May I have a moment of your time, Victoria?"
"I'll call Santa to make sure nothing's come up that would prevent him from appearing on time tomorrow," Mildred volunteered as she headed for the door. She smiled at Ian as she passed him. "If he's looking for Rudolph, I'll tell him to give you a call, Ian."
Victoria put her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh at Ian's unamused expression. When Mildred had closed the door he strode straight up to Victoria's desk, his countenance turning infinitely serious as he neared.
"We may have a problem with Gibson."
"Please." Victoria gestured to a chair. "Sit. Fill me in." The last she'd heard all was a go with theselection of the newest member of staff. Bradley Gibson had completed the series of interviews required, each done on his lunch break since he worked such long hours with Welton Investments down on the second floor of this very building.