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Eleven days until Christmas and Marnie McLaughlan hadn't finished her shopping, but that was the least of her worries. She eased open the back door of the salon. The only sounds were the comforting hum of the refrigerator in the staff room and the clacking of a keyboard in the office to her right. She waited for the familiar click telling her the door had locked behind her before she headed for the office.
This was the day she'd wished for and worried over.
She was about to sell her half interest in Total Elegance, the hair-and-aesthetics salon she and her partner, Shane Walker, had co-owned for the past ten years. Her brothers, the superachiever foursome, would jump out of their jock straps if they knew she was in the process of selling her part of the business without their input. She had come in today to get her copy of the agreement to go over with her lawyer before signing. She was quite proud of the fact that her brothers wouldn't be involved. Their best-before date as inquisitive overseers had long since passed.
At the door of the office she had shared with Shane through all the growing pains of their business she hesitated. This was it. She would read the agreement one more time, then take it to her lawyer. She took a deep breath and tapped lightly. He glanced up, his spiked mullet bobbing like a rooster's comb as he stood to greet her. "Hey, great to see you," he said, all brightness and light. Marnie had only one wish where her soon-to-be-ex-partner was concerned. She'd like him to change his hairstyle. When she first met him he'd styled his dark hair to frame his face, softening his angular features, and now the vertical spike of hair only made his nose appear longer, his chin more pointed. Worst of all, his haircut made him look dated.
It was a word that everyone who was anyone in the beauty industry hated to hear, and Marnie didn't have the heart to tell him. Then again, maybe he knew and just didn't care. But why should she worry about it, anyway? In mere weeks, she'd be able to put Shane's hair, and all the other issues that came with running a salon, out of her mind. "Freedom thirty-five," she'd dubbed her decision.
"It's great to see you, too," she said, crossing the narrow space and sitting down in what passed for the guest chaira warped, plastic lawn chair she'd pilfered from her parents' garage.
"So, are we ready to sign?" he inquired, his eyebrows doing an odd dance over his forehead, a rather peculiar move for a man, and one that had left questions in the minds of some of their patrons as to his sexual orientation. But those in doubt didn't know Shane's history where women were concerned. He was a consummate professional at work and a regular tomcat at nightthat is until a particularly clever feline had put an end to his roaming ways.
Her name was Gina, and Shane planned to marry her, which was why he'd offered to buy Marnie's half of the business. Gina, it turned out, was also a hairdresser and she and Shane were working on more than marriage plans.
"Slow down, Shane. Like I told you yesterday, I want my lawyer to read it before I sign." She reached for the document, intending to pop it into her oversized bag.
"Sorry. It's just that I'm so anxious, you know. God!" He sandwiched his head between his hands. "I've never felt like this before! We'll be celebrating our three-month anniversary in a week, can you believe that?" he asked, giving her the same wide-eyed look she'd seen at least a dozen times a day for the past few months.
If he launched into yet another of his long-winded sagas about the wonders of love at first sight, about his plans for marriage and a future with the soon-to-be Gina Walker, she was going to have to slap him. She'd never slapped anyone except her brother Scott for telling Andy Capson she wanted to go out with him. But if Shane didn't stop talking about how great love felt, how happy he was As far as Marnie was concerned, love was nothing more than a word in the dictionary somewhere between lovata tweed of muted greenand lowinferior or depressed.
All the boyfriends she'd had to date could be slotted into one of two categories: they either had issues around commitment, or they bordered on being illiterate. And if that wasn't bad enough, they'd all turned out to be liars. Every man with whom she'd had a relationship had been dishonest in one way or another.
"Your three-month anniversary?" she repeated idly, as she skimmed the opening paragraphs of the sales agreement, glad to see the main terms of the agreement in writing, especially the financial ones. There was a non-competition clause, restricting her from opening a salon in the city, which was fine with her.
Shane put his hand on her shoulder. "Look, take your time and read through carefully, but I would like to have it all settled before Christmas. Is that possible?"
She looked up from the document as she considered what he'd said. As much as she loved the business, she'd often wished for something more. She was a good manager, and she wanted a bigger challenge in her life, but he hadn't considered acting on her discontent until Gina had started at the salon. The unfortunate truth was that she couldn't work with the woman. She was bossy and overbearing.
Marnie hadn't busted her butt for ten years to end up taking orders from a woman whose only qualification, other than that of hairdresser, was that she had snagged the other owner. And with the cash from the buyout Marnie would be able to start a different business. She didn't know what yet, but she'd figure it out. All she needed was a little time.
"Before Christmas? I don't see why that should be a problem," she said.
"Great. I'll go out and put the coffee on so we can have a cup to celebrate. I brought a bag of these special beans Gina loves. They're from Costa Rica. I'll go grind them and be right back. Do you want a cappuccino? Or just regular?"
"Why don't we splurge and have a cappuccino?"
He winked at her and smiled the goofy smile he'd recently acquired. "You got it."
After he left, Marnie skipped through the legalese to the important parts of the agreement, and made sure they said what Shane had promised.
She sat back and let her gaze move around the office, remembering the long hours she'd spent there, the worries she and Shane had had over the finances, whether they'd be able to grow their client list and hire the best hairdressers. But most of all she remembered the sense of accomplishment she'd felt when she and Shane had been written up in one of the local magazines, commended for their successful partnership. And now, as she faced the fact that this would all be over in a few weeks, she felt a sudden pang of longing.
For ten years she'd lived and breathed Total Elegance. She'd borrowed her share of the start-up money, and then prayed that the salon would be enough of a success to pay off her loan. It was and she had. She'd proven to her family that she could succeed on her own terms, and it felt so good.
Marnie swallowed against the hard lump in her throat. This was not the time for tears. She and Shane had had a good ride, but it would be fun to spend a few weeks considering her next venture, sleeping in until noon, shopping when she felt like it.
Shane reappeared with two mugs in his hands, and with what had become his signature wide-body smile, only to come to a dead halt. "Hey, Marnie, is something wrong?"
His words startled her. "no. Nothing. Why?"
He passed her a cup with her usual two teaspoons of sugar and went to sit behind the desk, placing his mug on a coaster Marnie's mother had crocheted for the officeto give it a homey touch, as she'd put it. "For a minute, I thought I'd left something out of the agreement," he said, hefting his size-twelve shoes up onto the corner of the desk.
"Not at all." She took a sip of her coffee, letting the aroma infiltrate her nostrils while the caffeine hot-wired her mind.
"Well, what do you think? Is it all right?"
"I'm sure it is . I'll miss this place."
12 the christmas inn
"I know you will, honey. If you'd like to work in the salon until you decide on a new career, that's fine by me," he offered, his words holding the nuance of a man who just realized that he should run the idea past his woman.
"Thanks. I appreciate it," she said. "But I think I'm going to concentrate on what I want to do next."
"Have you considered going back to university?"
Having flunked her first year, she didn't intend on repeating the experience. Besides, she didn't want to waste her hard-earned cash on learning things she'd never use. She was far too practical. Of course, not having made up her mind about her future would mean she'd have to sit through the next dozen or so family dinners, and be subjected to all sorts of unwanted advice.
"School isn't for me, at least not right" A loud banging sound interrupted her.
"Someone's at the back door at this hour of the morning?" Shane asked, a frown on his face.
"I'll go and see," Marnie said, hopping up from her chair and heading out back. Deliveries didn't start until 9:00 a.m., and there was little chance that any of the staff would appear ahead of their shift. She peeked through the little hole in the middle of the door.
"No!" she moaned. Turning, she braced her back against the hard surface. She would unlock the door and let her nuisance of a brother into the salon when pigs wore roller skates. Scott couldn't be certain she was there, and besides, even if he persisted in banging on the door, she wasn't going to answer.
"Marnie. I know you're in there, and we need to talk."
Luke Harrison had zero interest in Christmas. As far as he was concerned it was everyone's excuse to run up bills they couldn't pay, but that didn't mean he wasn't excited for other people and for all the planning that came with the season.
As of today, The Mirabel Inn was fully booked for what he and his staff had named the Christmas Getaway Event. The event had been designed for married couples who didn't have family plans or who had finally decided to skip the Christmas madness, and simply have a quiet, elegant holiday by themselves. He'd done it on a smaller scale last Christmas but had run into problems when other guests booked into the inn who weren't part of the programone of the single women had flirted with one of the married men, resulting in the wife packing up and leaving. A messy, uncomfortable situation he didn't want to have repeated this year.
This year the event included five daysthree before Christmas, plus Christmas Day and the twenty-sixth. It had taken months to put together a good marketing campaign, but it had paid off. The only room left in the inn was a small one, with a double bed, that was earmarked for renovation, making it into an office for the housekeeper Mary Cunningham.
He'd been up since six that morning, thanks to his four-year-old son, Ethan, who'd been promised a chance to help decorate the huge balsam fir that was presently being strung with lights in preparation for a tree-trimming party. The staff and their families had been invited to a luncheon due to start at noon, after the tree trimming, a party to show appreciation for the staff of the inn. Luke, as the manager, had to be there to kick off the celebration. It was important to hold this party before the getaway event began as many of the staff would be working throughout the holidays.
Despite his aversion to Christmas, Luke enjoyed this event because he got a chance to give back to the staff and their families whose support was important to the success of the inn. The lunch buffet would be set up in the glassed-in patio along the south side of the two-hundred-year-old inn. The chef, Max Anderson, was making lobster quiche, this year's special dish, along with the usual turkey, ham and all the vegetables, rolls and condiments people enjoyed as part of the Christmas festivities. Family members of the staff, who liked to bake, provided the desserts, showcasing the recipes of some of the best bakers in the region.
Tidying the cost projections report he'd been reading at his desk, he placed it on top the pile, intending to work on it later. When Luke had first come to work at The Mirabel Inn, he'd gotten rid of the stark furnishings in the office and added his own touches along with state-of-the-art computers to assist in managing the inn. But his favorite piece in the office was an antique oak desk with hidden drawers, pigeonholes and a roll-up top, a special gift from his grandfather. Grant Harrison had left the desk to him in his will, and now it was a part of his life. A daily reminder of his grandfather, who had owned one of the largest inns in Connecticut years before.
He was closing his computer when someone knocked on the door. Before he could answer, Mary Cunningham opened the door and Ethan rushed in behind her.
"Well, hello there, big guy," Luke said, getting up from his desk in time to catch Ethan in his arms.
"Daddy!" the little boy yelled, a red-and-green cap balanced precariously on his head.
"Where did you get the elf hat?" Luke asked. Scooping Ethan up and holding him close, he breathed in his scentusually a mixture of dirt from playing with his dump trucks in the garden plot next to the back patio, and sweat from racing around the property. But today there was just a hint of cinnamon, enhanced by frosting smudges on his cheeks, which meant Ethan had been in the kitchen driving the pastry cook crazy with his questions and his pleas for more sweets.
"Mary gived it to me," Ethan said, triumphantly.
Luke had planned to spend the day with his son, but an urgent call from the owners of the inn had meant he'd been forced to work on cost figures this morning. He was proud of his management of the inn, which was located only a few miles from some of the best skiing in the eastern united States.