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The envelope sat on Grace McKinnon's hotel-room desk in Santo Domingo for a good three hours before she picked it up and glanced at the return address.
Beckett's Run, Massachusetts.
Her grandmother had to be pretty determined to track her down all the way out here. But that was Gram. When she wanted something, she got it. A stubbornness Grace had inheriteda curse, her mother called it, a blessing Gram always said. Either way, right now, Grace had bigger issues to deal with, so the envelope would have to wait.
"I just turned in the Dominican Republic piece a couple hours ago," Grace said into the phone. "Where do you want me to go next?"
The cell connection faded as she paced the room, passing the desk and the letter several times before coming to a stop again. She shifted back to the window, perched against the farthest southern pane. Below the ten floors of the hotel, cars congested the roads of Santo Domingo, impatient horns blaring an angry chorus in the bright morning sun.
Grace's hip nudged the desk and dislodged the envelope again. She leaned on the corner of the desk, toward the strongest cell signal she could find, and fingered the envelope while she listened to her boss's latest rant.
"I don't want you to go anywhere next. I skimmed what you emailed and the Dominican piece was okay, full of the usual hotspots for tourists and that kind of thing, but honestly, that New Zealand one was a mess. You kept veering off on other tangents, like the tents set up by the homeless. What tourist wants to see that? That's the kind of piece someone would write for that tearjerker Social Issues. Not what I hired you for and not what you said you wanted to write."
"It is what I want to write."
"Yeah? Then why do you keep sending me these change-the-world things?"
She bit back a sigh. "Wouldn't it be nice to run something different once in a while?"
"Hell, no. The advertisers don't want different. Neither do the readers. So just give me what I'm paying you for."
"I will." She shifted her weight again. In the last couple of years, all those happy vacation stories had gotten on her nerves. She wanted more. The problem was, she didn't have the chops to write more. She'd sent a few pieces to Social Issues, thinking she'd be a shoo-in because the editor, Steve Esler, had been her mentor in college and a good friend since then. For years he'd encouraged her to come over to the magazine and write something with "depth and meaning." She'd sent him those pieces, then sat in his office and watched him shake his head.
"You 're a better writer than this, Grace. You need to put your heart into your stories. Then the reader will laugh and cry right along with you. These articles they feel like you're afraid to care."
So she'd gone back to travel writing, to the empty kind of writing about the best hotels and zipline tours she'd written before. She told herself she was happy, that she didn't want to be one of those starry-eyed fresh-from-college journalism grads who thought they could change the world with their pen.
Except a part of her had always felt that way. And still did. Even if she wasn't a good enough writer to do that.
"I don't want humanity's woes smeared all over the page," her editor was saying. "I want happy destination recaps and most of all laughing people, who are completely unaware there is a single issue in the world worth worrying about while they sip their margaritas and enjoy a relaxing massage."
Paul Rawlins let out a long sigh. Even all the way from Manhattan, she could hear her editor's discontent.
"You let me down, Grace. Again. I can't count on you anymore."
"One mistake, Paul. The pictures"
"It's not just one. It's many. Your stories are flat lately. Uninspired. You even made Fiji boring, for Pete's sake. Fiji. What happened? You used to be my best freelancer."
But something had. Something had shifted inside her when she'd been in Russia and seen that little girl on the streets, wearing nothing more than a thin summer dress in the middle of winter while she peddled newspapers that no one wanted to buy. Grace had taken a photo and, through a translator, gathered enough information to write a story, thinking maybe someone somewhere would see it and champion the cause of homeless orphans.
But the article hadn't made it past the Social Issues editor's desk because it hadn't done its jobmoved the reader to act. The editor there was right. Grace McKinnon's heart was surrounded by a wall, one Grace had never been able to break. She should stick to what she knew and stop trying to be something she wasn't.
She'd get back to work, and somehow it would all work itself out. If she buried herself in work she'd be fine. Just fine.
"Why don't you take a break, Grace?" Paul said. "Just a couple weeks. Take a vacation, then come back to work."
She bristled. "Take a break? But I'm at the height of my career here."
"No. You're not."
His words, flat and final, drove the last spike into Grace's hopes.
She had lost her groove somewhere along the way. For years she'd jetted from here to there, flitting around the world like a hummingbird in a flower garden. Her career as a travel writer for one of the largest destination magazines in the world had suited her just fine. No real ties to anything or anyone, and a job that depended on one personherself.
Then she had run into an assignment that had changed her life, changed her thinking, and everything since then had paled in comparison. She'd left the travel magazine world for the deeper pieces of Social Issues, and when that hadn't panned out she'd returned to travel writing, but something was wrong, an off beat, a missed step.
She kept trying to find a way back to the writer she had been before, and failing. Maybe if her sister had come when she'd called, Grace could have taken that last piece to the next level. Hope's photographic eye always saw the best in everything. But, no, Hope had refused her. Grace still smarted about that turndown. The one time she'd needed Hope Hope had said no.
In the last few months the magazine assignments had trickled away to almost nothing. And the last few jobs
Well, Paul was right. They hadn't been Grace's best work. They hadn't even been her close-to-best work. Still, the thought of having all that time over the holidays stretching ahead of her with no way to fill it
"Paul, let me do the Switzerland piece that I pitched last week. There's this train there that takes people up to the mountain. Real travel hotspot. I can cover it from the point of view of the localsthe people who live up there and need to take it down to the hospital"
"Give it a rest, Grace. Seriously. It's almost Christmas. Just take some time off, get your wind back and call me after the holidays. We'll be needing pieces on romantic holiday destinations then. And if " He paused. "And I mean if you are really ready to come back, then we'll talk about you going to Switzerland."
In other words, take the vacation. Or else. At least he hadn't outright fired her. The job would be there as soon as the holidays were over. She'd sit on a beach somewhere and sip margaritas and tell Paul she'd recouped like crazy. What choice did she have, really? She needed this job, and if Paul thought she needed a vacation to keep it, well, she'd do that. Or pretend. "Sure. Will do."
"Good." The relief bled through his voice, across the miles and around the world. He said goodbye, and then he was gone.
Leaving Grace alone in her hotel room, without a job or a destination. She hadn't been this adrift in years. Maybe more than a decade.
Outside, the constant busy stream of traffic beeped and chugged its way through Santo Domingo. She crossed to the window, watching people hurrying on their way to their jobs. Landscapers hitching rides on the back of flatbeds, hotel workers riding three to a moped, taxi drivers weaving in and out of the dense traffic jam. The salty tang of ocean air mingled with the constant fumes of congestion, giving the city a curious sweet/sour smell. All around her stood stone buildings as old as time, the foundation of North America's history, the first stepping stone for Christopher Columbus himself. Santo Domingo was a beautiful, tragic city. One she had loved. Her digital camera was full of images for her scrapbook. Not a one of them featured the beautiful beaches of Punta Cana or the bustling open air markets. No, the pictures Grace took featured other sides of the city, of the countries she visited. The kind of pictures her editor didn't want, the kind that would never accompany a story about the best vacation spots in Latin America. The kind that she had once thought would launch a career built on depth, meaning.
Why couldn't she just give up that idea? Be happy she was employed and paid to travel the world? Why did she keep searching for the very things she wasn't meant to have?
She paced around the room some more, then started packing. She loaded the last of her things into her duffle bag, then hefted it off the bed and set it by the door. Then she stood in the center of the room
Where was she going to go from here? The beach? Alone? At Christmas?
If anything screamed loser, that would be it. Sitting in some romantic destination, sipping margaritas by herself, watching all those families and couples on holiday frolic in the surf. Grace liked to be alone, but not in a place where everyone was paired off like the animals on Noah's ark.
What she needed was a destination that could serve two purposesgive her the vacation she'd promised Paul she would take, and give her an opportunity to write a bonus piece, one that really showed him she still had what it took. Sure, a little quiet time might be good, too. Give her a chance to catch up on her emails. Finally figure out that social media thing, perhaps.
Grace's attention landed on the letter from Gram. She'd almost forgotten it. She retrieved it from the desk, then tore it open, expecting the usual Christmas news and a gift card to the mall.
Instead, a plane ticket slipped out and tumbled to the floor. Grace's gaze dropped to Gram's loopy writing.
I hope this letter finds you well. I've missed seeing you and was so disappointed when you had to cancel your trip home last year. And the year before that. I've decided that this is the year I'll see all my family for the holidays. I'm not getting any younger, and seeing you is high on my list for Santa. So, please, come home to Beckett's Run. It promises to be a wonderful holiday here, what with the town's two-hundredth-year celebration and all the festivities planned for that shindig. You wouldn't believe the event that is turning into! Something worthy of the front page, that's for sure.
I've enclosed a plane ticket. So no more excuses, sweetheart. Come home. Love always, Gram
Grace picked up the ticket from the floor. Go home to Beckett's Run for Christmas. To anyone else, a visit to the cozy little Massachusetts town with its snowy, magical holiday setting would sound perfect. Very Norman Rockwellish. But to Grace.
It sounded like torture.
Beckett's Run. The very place that contained everythingand everyoneshe had run from years ago. Did she really want to revisit all that?
Then she glanced at the letter again. Two-hundred-year celebration. Big events planned. The cliche of a small town getting together for the holidays. The wheels in her head began to turn, and she made her decision. She hefted her bag onto her shoulder and headed out of the hotel.
And back to Beckett's Run.
The holiday had descended upon Beckett's Run like ten feet of snow. In a matter of days, the town had gone from winter doldrums and hues of gray and white to bright red and green, with cheery music piping from the storefronts and crimson swags swinging from light to light. The bench sitting in front of Ray's Hardware and Sundries boasted a bright red bow, the statue of town founder Andrew Beckett had a wreath necklace, and even the cement frog sitting on the front of Lucy Wilson's lawn sported a bright red Santa hat.
J. C. Carson slowed his Land Rover as he passed Carol's Diner, sending a wave in the direction of the Monday Morning Carp ClubAl, Joe and Karl, who claimed the carp was for their fishing trips, but in J.C.'s opinion it was for the observing and reporting they did from the bench in front of Carol's every day. J.C. turned right at the stop sign, then circled back around to the town park. Volunteers filled the snow-dusted space, while they worked like bundled-up bees to complete the setup for the town's holiday celebration. The first Beckett's Run Winter Festival had been planned by Andrew Beckett himself, and in the two centuries since the event had grown to include visits from Santa, sleigh-ride races down Main Street and Christmas-tree-decorating competitions. That meant the two-hundred-year-milestone celebration had a lot to live up to and a lot to outdo.
J.C. had heard one TV crew was already camped out at Victoria's Bed and Breakfast. No one was surprised Beckett's Run had recently been voted "Most Christmas Spirit" by a world-renowned magazine, and that had the media spotlight focused on the tiny town's party.
That meant J.C. had to ensure one thingthe smooth running of the holiday event. Ten years ago no one would have pegged J.C. as the one to keep the town running on an even keel. Heck, he'd been tearing up these streets and running wild. But that had been before, and he had stopped being that J.C. a long time ago.
Beckett's Run wasn't exactly overrun with crimea fact evidenced by the five-person police departmentso J.C. didn't expect any real trouble, but planned for it just in case. The kind of publicity the article would bring would also bring in tourist dollarssomething struggling Beckett's Run needed. Too many shops had been shuttered, too many houses sold. In the last couple of years J.C. had done all he could to shore up the town's waning economy, but finally realized if no one else believed in the town, there was only so much one man could do.
It was part of the reason why he'd volunteered to head up the committee for this year's celebration. He'd seen Beckett's Run die a little more each year, after economic and personal blows hammered away at the town's core. He loved this town, and if a Christmas celebration could restore the town's faith in itself, J.C. wanted to be part of that effort. And in the process attract some much-needed tourist dollars to the coastal Massachusetts town.
But there was more, much more, he hoped the Winter Festival could do. What had started as a way to help Beckett's Runand stop Pauline Brimmer from calling him and begging him to chair the committeehad become something personal to J.C. Something that mattered more than an economic boost to the town.
The day his life had turned upside down, J.C. had taken a leave of absence from his position at Carson Investments, given his Boston apartment key to his housekeeper, then driven out to Beckett's Run and moved back into his old room at his mother's house. He was too tall and too old for the rickety twin in his baseball-filled room, but sometimes there were more important things in life than whether his feet hung over the end of the mattress. Soon he'd have to return to Boston.
Which meant he needed to make some hard decisions. And fast.