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A Chance This Christmas
Author:Joanne Rock

A Chance This Christmas

Joanne Rock




Chapter One






Sneaking back into her Christmas-crazed hometown—the quaintly renamed “Yuletide, New York”—Rachel Chambers started to sneeze before she even reached her mother’s driveway. No surprise there, since she’d been allergic to Christmas ever since the famous Yuletide Revitalization efforts that turned the former anemic Harristown into the thriving Alpine village that attracted tourists year-round.

For years, her father had been lauded as the mastermind behind a public relations coup that put their sleepy Adirondack municipality on the map. But when he absconded with the town’s funds earmarked for building a new Santa’s workshop the summer before Rachel left for college, her family went from local saviors to big-time villains, as if they were all the Scrooges that stole Christmas.

Rachel sneezed two more times as she trudged through the snow from the centrally located parking lot toward the childhood home that her mother had maintained even after Rachel’s dad took off. The house had been billed as the original Santa’s workshop at one time, and half of it was open to the public when Rachel had been growing up. In the eight years since her father’s embezzlement, the locals had raised enough funds to go through with the new digs for Santa across town, downgrading the Chambers’ residence to a run-of-the-mill elf house.

As Rachel stared up at it—garish green and red lights blinking from every eave and lit wreaths crowding each window—she thought the house looked more like the nightmare vision of an elf on crack. But that opinion might have been influenced by the Christmas allergy.

At the next sneeze, she dug in her purse for an antihistamine and hurried to the side door with her suitcase before anyone spotted her. Her mother might have regained some standing in Yuletide, but Rachel knew she wouldn’t be warmly welcomed in her first reappearance since the summer her father left eight years ago. Some people blamed Rachel for distracting the whole town with a scandal of her own while her father fled.

But that was another story.

She kept her wool ski cap low on her forehead to blend in with the holiday crowds already swarming the sidewalks. The Chambers’ home (now identified out front as Teeny Elf’s House to fit a new storyline in the walking tour brochure) was on the main thoroughfare, right across from the town square with the gazebo and a hundred-foot tree. Thankfully, Teeny Elf’s House wasn’t the big draw for tourists that Santa’s workshop had been back when Rachel was a kid, so she didn’t have much trouble slinking past the families marveling over Teeny’s toys in progress on the main level.

The scent of pine and mistletoe hung heavy in the air as the “Waltz of the Flowers” was piped in over well-hidden speakers. In addition to the trains, trucks and dolls in progress on the workbenches, there were replica toys for sale in the gift shop portion of the house up front. Rachel waited until the back room was empty except for her and then she headed up the darkened stairs where a sign read “Closed to the Public” on a chain that had never kept people out when she was a kid either.

Once, a whole family had trooped through her bedroom with their cameras during a birthday sleepover, looking for Santa. There was a YouTube video of it somewhere. As if it hadn’t been mortifying enough when it had actually happened, she had the joy of seeing her sleepover makeovers go viral. Viewers seemed to love it when she threw a tube of gooey pink lipstick at the camera, screeching at them to get out. Back then, her allergy to balsam hadn’t surfaced yet and she’d been happy here, for the most part.

“Mom?” she called down the upstairs hall as the scent of pine gave way to lemon polish and the zingy citrus tea her mother liked.

She hadn’t called ahead to warn her mother of the visit since Rachel hadn’t been entirely sure she’d really go through with it. Normally, her mom visited her in Brooklyn where she’d lived since graduating from design school. But Rachel had made a wine-inspired pact with her girlfriends one night that they would each “make peace with the past” to try and fix their assorted messy lives. Inspired by a radio show where a life coach impressed upon them that you couldn’t move forward until you’d healed your past, Rachel thought it sounded brilliant at the time.

Yet it had taken her almost a year to really follow through. She needed to make peace with Yuletide, for one thing. And with her long-ago boyfriend, Luke Harris, the hometown hero everyone in town thought she’d betrayed the day she was caught kissing his best friend during that parade she’d skipped. Luke was slated to marry Rachel’s former best friend the following week and Kiersten Garrett—the bride-to-be—wanted Rachel to be there. Tough to do when the groom still shunned her along with half the rest of the population.

Or so Luke led the world to believe. Rachel wasn’t sure if anyone else knew that she’d broken things off with him weeks before that incident to follow her crush on his friend, Gavin Blake. Gavin had attended private school in nearby Lake Placid but he’d taken to hanging out with friends in Yuletide starting in middle school. She’d ended up being part of a silly teen love triangle—chased by Luke even after the breakup, and all the while she chased Gavin, a local star athlete who’d barely given her the time of day. It all came to a head on the day she missed the parade and her life turned upside down.

“Mom?” Rachel called again, peering up the second staircase toward the small third floor. Since it seemed quiet up there, she headed toward the living area, passing discolored patches on the walls where family photos used to hang.

Her mother had dealt with the worst of the town’s fury after the Chris Chambers’ embezzlement scandal. Rachel had tried to convince her mom to put the house on the market and get out of Yuletide for good, but there’d been no budging her. This was her home, no matter that her husband had betrayed her and all their friends, too.

“Rachel? Is that you?” Her mother’s voice—tentative, anxious—floated from the front of the sprawling, Swiss-style chalet.

“… Rachel?” A second feminine voice sounded. Louder. Belligerent.

Uh-oh.

Since when did her mother have company? Rachel’s steps halted just outside the living room.