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Mated Under The Mistletoe: A Winter Romance (Vale Valley Book 1) by Connor Crowe (1)

The Phone Call

Sebastian

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Wallace!”

Hannah poked her head into my office, brandishing a glittery card and a very festive looking cupcake.

A quick glance at the calendar on my desktop read December 1. I turned to Hannah and gave her my best smile. “You going to keep doing this every day till Christmas?” I asked. “There’s still a whole month left.”

She gave me her best pouty face. “And who says I can’t start celebrating early? Besides, if there’s cupcakes in it for you, you can’t be too grumpy about it.”

She had a point. I shrugged and took the card and cupcake from her, setting them on my desk next to all the day’s paperwork. “Thank you, Hannah.” I turned back to her. “And you know you can call me Sebastian. I may be the CEO, but I don’t want anyone to feel they can’t approach me. We’re in this together.”

Hannah bobbed her head up and down. The tight black ponytail she always wore bounced from side to side, and that’s when I realized: she was wearing a jingle bells hair tie.

Lord, this was gonna be a long month.

“Of course, Mr.—I mean Sebastian. Can I call you Seb? I was coming in here to let you know I’m traveling for the holidays starting December 12th. My family has this whole crazy 12 days of Christmas tradition, and I couldn’t miss it…”

The twelfth. So soon.

I rubbed my forehead, trying to come up with a response. But she looked so excited about going home, so sure that I’d say yes, that I couldn’t resist.

“Oh, all right. But you know we have some big deadlines coming up. Think you’ll be able to finish your work before you leave?”

“I will, promise. Thank you Seb!” With that, she bounced out the door, her musical hair tie ringing as she went.

The door clattered closed and I returned to the computer. Less than a month until Christmas. And so much yet to do.

I wondered why I’d given in so easily to Hannah’s request. I wasn’t exactly known for being the most festive this time of year. But there was a reason for that.

When I saw Hannah’s eyes light up as she talked about her family, it touched something inside me. Something I’d lost, long ago. Hope? Happiness? Joy for the future?

Didn’t matter now though. What mattered was closing this deal before Christmas. Everyone knew nearly the entire month of December was a dead zone for work getting done, but it wasn’t like I had a choice.

I’d busted my ass getting Wallace Innovations off the ground, and now we were one of the up and coming consulting firms in New York City.

That came with a price, though. My people were feeling the strain of all the work, and I was too, much as I didn’t want to admit it. Our reputation for quick and stellar service meant we were working basically all the time, and while it was fun at first, lost in the heady haze of adrenaline and bootstrapping the business, it was starting to wear on us. All of us. 

I ran a hand through my hair and stared at the computer screen, my eyes glazing over. Deep inside, my dragon roared. It didn’t like being cooped up like this. I knew that much. But I’d never asked to be a shifter. Especially in the cutthroat world of business, coming out as a shifter would only be a liability. So I kept to myself and buried those parts of me deep, deep within. 

I left my hometown as soon as I could and set off for the big city. I didn’t want any part of their games. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be more than nature had decided for me. 

And it worked. Sorta. 

With an MBA in hand, they said I’d have my pick of opportunities. So what did I do? Started my own business, of course. Something about me and authority never really meshed too well. Hell, I nearly got kicked out of school a couple times. But I remembered why I was there in the first place and doubled down. Tripled down. 

I needed school, just as I needed to keep my shifter at bay. I needed routine and discipline to make up for my weaknesses. And there were many. 

When’s the last time you’ve stretched your wings? A little voice came from within. I shook my head and squinted at the spreadsheet even more aggressively, like that would make the thoughts go away.

You need to get out. A dragon isn’t meant to be cooped up in an office.

“I’m not a dragon,” I muttered through gritted teeth. “I’m a man.”

And an alpha, it teased. When are you going to find a mate?

When I’m done here, was the first answer that came to mind, but it wasn’t a good one. Anyone could tell you that any endeavor, creative or otherwise, was never truly done. You simply built it the best you could and then took that leap of faith, putting it out into the world. 

Yeah. It was that leaping part I wasn’t so good at sometimes. 

My thoughts returned to Hannah’s jingling pigtails and the festive cheer on her face when mentioning going home for Christmas. Had I stayed in Vale Valley, there probably would have been a huge celebration for the season. There always was, at least when I was a kid. All the shifters got together and ran, flew, or swam free, the night of Christmas Eve. A way to ring in the season. 

But my favorite part of it all? No question. The yearly Festival of Fire was one of the things I missed most about Vale Valley. That and Rosemary Vale. She was the mayor of the town and one of the sweetest old ladies I’d ever met. I almost regretted leaving her when I ‘spread my wings’ after high school and left town. Always there with a kind word or a helping hand, she seemed to be everywhere at once, and had an uncanny knack for knowing what others wanted or needed, even when they didn’t quite know it themselves. 

Growing up in Vale Valley, it wasn’t that weird, though. It was an enclave of shifters and non shifters alike, held in balance by a magical force field around the town. A spell hung over the valley, ensuring that only the full hearted would ever find the place.

If you’re lost and need love and a warm home, Vale Valley will be there for you.

I mouthed the words of our hometown slogan. So cheery. So cheesy. So...optimistic. They lived in a bubble, without a care for the goings-on of the real world. More than a little irresponsible, if you asked me.

But they’d made their choices. Just as I’d made mine. And business was picking up here in NYC. Just had to dig myself and my team out from under this mountain of work we’d created for ourselves...

The phone rang and I startled, jostling the cup of pens on the desk and sending them flying. 

I cleared my throat and grabbed the phone, taking a quick moment to exhale and ground myself. 

“Hello, Wallace Innovations. This is Sebastian Wallace speaking.”

“Sebastian. Oh, thank god I got the right number. I wasn’t sure, took me quite a bit of digging to find you out there in the wide world.”

I froze. I knew that voice. Hadn’t heard it in years, but still I knew it like the back of my hand. 

That was Rosemary Vale. 

“Rose,” I breathed. “How’d you find me?”

“You know I’ve always had a knack for that, sweetheart.”

I huffed in amusement. “I know. But why now?”

She grew silent for a moment, then choose her words carefully. “I wish I was contacting you under better circumstances, Sebastian. But it’s your mother.”

I froze. Blinked. Surely I hadn’t heard that right. 

“Sebastian?” Rose asked on the other line. “You there?” 

“Yeah,” I croaked. “What happened to her?”

When I left Vale Valley, I hadn’t done so on the best of terms. I was ready to get out and see the world. I was ready to take life into my own hands, something I hadn’t quite been able to do back at home. 

Silence strung out on the end of the line. A lump built up in my throat. Sure, I left out of rebellion and anger, but if something had happened to her...

“I hate to be the one to tell you this, Seb. But Nellie died in her sleep last night. Totally unexpected, mind you. But she went peacefully.”

I gripped the phone so hard my knuckles hurt. “Wha-?” I stammered. She didn’t actually say ‘died’. She didn’t.

“I’m so sorry, Sebastian. Your mother has passed away.”

Memories flooded back all at once. I drowned in them. All the things I’d never told her. And all the things I wish I could have done, could have said...

She went to her grave believing that her only son had abandoned her.

I vaguely heard Rose’s voice on the other end of the line, but she sounded far away now. Distant.

“It was sudden, but she had a rough will drafted up not long ago. She was in perfect health beforehand, far as we could tell. But these things happen sometimes, unfortunately. The only problem now is her estate. Since you’re the next-of-kin, you need to be here.”

“I...yeah. When?” My mind spun. There was so much left to finish here, but if my mom was dead, did it even matter?

“Vale Valley needs you, Sebastian.” Rose echoed the same words that had been on my mind. “It’s time to come home.”

“Yeah,” I breathed, scrabbling around on the desk for something to write with. “I’ll get there on the next flight out. I...let me just notify my staff.”

“See you soon, Sebastian. You know Vale Valley will always be here to welcome you home.”

I sat there for a few moments in the silence of the office. How things had changed. Nothing like a death in the family to get you to re-evaluate your priorities. 

Even if we weren’t ever very close...in fact, because of that, it felt so much more raw. Like the rug had been ripped out from under me with no warning, no chance to make things right. 

I’d never get the chance to make amends with her. Never again get the chance to tell her I loved her. It wasn’t fair.

No, more than that. It was wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen!

My dragon reared up inside me, screeching in pain and grief. Gone! It shrieked. She’s gone! Mother!

Everything felt cold. Distant. Out of touch. There was a knock at my door, but I barely even registered it. 

I needed to tell the team. Then I needed to get my ass to Vale Valley.

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