Lila Santos is ready for her last winter break of high school. The snow in her small town of Holly, New York, is plentiful, the mood is as cozy as a fuzzy Christmas sweater, and she's earning extra cash working at the local inn—AKA the setting of the greatest film of all time, Holiday by the Lake—while moonlighting as an anonymous book blogger.
But her perfect holiday plans crash to a halt when her boss's frustratingly cute nephew, Teddy Rivera, becomes her coworker. Lila is type A; Teddy is type “Anything but Lila’s Way,” and the two of them can’t stop butting heads over tangled icicle lights and messy gift shop merch. But when they accidentally switch phones one afternoon, they realize they've both been hiding things from each other. Will their secrets—and an unexpected snowstorm—bring these rivals together?
“I swooned for the romance!”—Jasmine Guillory, New York Times bestselling author of The Proposal, on Tif Marcelo's The Key to Happily Ever After
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Saturday, December 11
The sound of jingle bells rips me from my computer screen, where I’m reading through my latest blog entry. Heart rocketing to my throat, I click on the Post button, then slam my laptop shut. From where I’m standing next to the waist-high bookshelf, I dive onto the floor and, in a move that would impress Simone Biles herself, land in a perfect cross-legged position next to a stack of donated books on a vintage sled. For effect, I pick up a book and hold it up to my face just as my boss, Ms. Velasco, walks in.
Lou Velasco’s expression is like a beacon of light, as it is every morning. She has a genuine, captivating smile on her face; not a strand of her dark, chin-length hair is out of place, and she’s wearing the perfect shade of berry lip gloss—hard to nail, mind you, on medium tawny skin, and I should know—that complements her Bookworm Inn polo. Palming a coffee cup that reads forget santa, watch out for me in bold red letters, she says, “Good morning, Lila. Early again?”
“I figured I should get started sorting through these books.” I steady my shaking voice and resist the temptation to glance at my laptop on the bookshelf. My best friend, Carm, reminds me time and again that my tells are my croaky voice and shifty eyes, so I focus hard on Ms. Velasco’s nose and not on my lingering, ever-evolving thoughts on my blog content, which I have to step up for this holiday season.
Because if Ms. Velasco knew how many times I arrived early before my weekend morning shifts or stayed a few minutes after my closing shifts under the guise of voluntarily categorizing books in the gift shop’s free library, she would find out that she’s harboring a criminal.
Okay, that’s a little extra. Not a criminal, but a sneak, an undercover.
“Well, your work shows.” She gestures at the shelves behind me—all donated—and the meticulously categorized books that fill them. The Bookworm Inn Free Library was a community service project I started when I was in the eighth grade with one little shelf and a dozen donated books. Five short years later, the library now lines an entire wall of the gift shop.
“Thank you.” My face warms, both from the compliment and the fact that my intentions have not been purely altruistic. Some might say I’m trying to cheat the system—in this case, my parents’ rules about certain types of internet use—but I attribute it to my entrepreneurial spirit.
Ms. Velasco twists the watch around her wrist. “Looks like ten minutes before we open. And I spy people in the parking lot.”
I scramble up and straighten my Bookworm Inn sweater. It’s a soothing forest green that’s supposed to embody the gorgeous foliage of the Finger Lakes region. That’s where fictional characters Leo Marks and Estelle Mendoza grew up and fell in love in the beloved 1996 film Holiday by the Lake, based on its namesake novel. The entire movie was filmed in our real town of Holly, New York, and most of its scenes were shot right here, on the Bookworm Inn property, owned and operated by the Velasco family for the last three decades. Holly has become a major tourist destination as a result, and fans of the movie flock here in droves every holiday season, camera-ready, to relive their favorite scenes.
“I’m ready. I’ll put this away and open up.”
Ms. Velasco nods, and when she turns, I stuff my laptop into my bag. I really need to be more careful. In my two years stealthily blogging behind the adorable, anonymous avatar of a brown-skinned, dark-haired, Santa-hat-wearing girl, this is the first time I’ve been close to getting caught in the act.
Which is not on any of my to-do lists. Primarily because Ms. Velasco and my mom are best friends, so anything that happens at the Inn will get back to her. Secondly, the Tinsel and Tropes blog, or TnT, is all mine, even if it’s a secret . . . and my plan is to keep it that way.
“Do you know what I think?” I glance at the different displays as I approach the front of the store, catching one pair of askew sunglasses and fixing it.
“What’s up?” Ms. Velasco flips a switch above the automatic double doors and tests them. Previously, the manual doors created a bottleneck at the entrance. Installing it kept the traffic flowing and is a mitigation effort to lessen germs, and while the increasing crowds finally convinced Ms. Velasco to invest in it, I can proudly declare that it was me who first suggested it.
“That we should attach a louder bell system to the back door. So we can keep track of who’s entering the store from the rear.” Plus, I’d know exactly when someone walked in. When you work in a gift shop that caters to the holidays, and live in a town that starts its holiday decorating in September and holds out until almost February, it’s easy to dismiss the sound of jingle bells. “Remember that time when we caught a customer trying to grab back access to the Inn?”
I half laugh, though the situation wasn’t funny at all. A super-fan of the movie’s lead actor, the debonair Jonah Johanson, was convinced that the Inn had access to the actor’s personal information. The woman figured out that the gift shop back entrance connects to the Inn through a passageway and thought it would lead to him.
“You know what? You’re right. You’re so on it. I’m sure going to miss you and your attention to detail when you leave us for school in the fall.” She takes out her phone and thumbs in my suggestion, but her tone carries a sad lilt despite her smile. “How are applications going? Last I heard from your mom, you’ve been knocking them out.”
Mixed emotions flip-flop in my belly. “I got in to my first choice, Syracuse.”
Her eyes round into saucers and she raises a hand. “No. Way.”
“Way, and in my declared major. Bio,” I proclaim, and I slap her palm. But beneath my joy is uncertainty. Syracuse is my dream school . . . and while I qualify for a merit-based scholarship, we’re still waiting on the financial aid package.
Her expression changes; she brightens like she’s having a lightbulb moment. “No way to the second power. My nephew goes to Syracuse, and in fact—” She’s interrupted by buzzing, and she slips her phone out of her back pocket. When she checks the screen, it’s like someone turned her energy button all the way up. “Oh my gosh. I have to take this. Do you mind doing the honors of opening, and I’ll woman the registers?”
“Glad to.” Grabbing my scarf with the Bookworm Inn’s logo embroidered at its ends, I wind it around my neck and, on the way out, snatch the information flyers about the movie, my free library, and the Inn itself, including the few cottages that are available for rent.
I take a purposeful step out of the double doors and smile at the approaching, eager tourists. “Welcome to the Bookworm Inn! Home of the famous movie Holiday by the Lake.”
Yes, it’s cheesy. I’m like a Disney World employee, brimming with cheer and good nature. But I believe in Ms. Velasco, and I genuinely love the movie and the book. I’ve proudly worked here part-time since my sophomore year, and this job is a large part and parcel of how I’m going to get myself to Syracuse next fall.
I square my shoulders and greet the early bird customers by sticking a flyer in each of their hands as they file through the double doors. Yep, I’m going to make it happen. I have to make it happen, one hour at a time.
After a speedy two hours of work that included breaking up an argument between two customers over who was next in line for a photo-op next to the famous canoe where Estelle and Leo had their first kiss, I get to do my most favorite thing: organize my library.
Aligning spines, dusting shelves, and finding the rogue out-of-place book. It’s like I’m being paid to play.
I’m balancing eight donated books against my chest as I enter from the back entrance of the shop—because who’s got time for a second trip—when my foot catches on the carpet. As I stumble, the pile tips, and the hard corner of a travel book pokes me in the eye, blurring my vision. I become the Leaning Tower of Pisa without the cables that keep it somewhat upright. “Holy fruitcake!”
“Whoa there,” KC Chang, another senior from my high school—easily detected by the smell of peppermint gum—steadies me. He takes an armful of books from the top of the stack.
“Thanks.” I blink back the last of my tears and he comes into view. He’s Chinese American with fair skin and black hair with longish bangs swept to the side. And yep, completely against work rules, he’s chomping away at gum.
But what gets my attention are the limp and soggy posters under his arm. “Whoa to you. What happened?”
He grimaces. “What do you get when you mix a toddler with an open bottle of water?”
I make a face.
KC and I, who have worked together for a year, agree that we’d take a hundred customers in twenty minutes over any food or drink accident. The gift shop is always packed to the brim with inventory, and one spill requires us to move the displays, which takes up precious time we do not have. Especially during the busy holiday season.
“Yeah. Luckily these are the only victims.” He lifts the posters.
“Hi, you two.” Ms. Velasco sticks her head out from her office. “Lila, can we chat for a moment?”
When Ms. Velasco ducks away, KC’s eyebrows lift. “What’s that about?”
“I don’t know. I did ask her the other day if I could work full-time hours during break,” I whisper, wiping my hands on my jeans. My winter break lasts from the twenty-second of December until the fifth of January. Every dollar in my bank account brings me one hundred cents closer to Syracuse, and I need to earn as much as I can before I graduate.