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The Christmas Countdown (Holiday Lake #1) by Ani Gonzalez (1)









CHAPTER ONE



PRISTINE WHITE beaches, sunbeams raining down, turquoise waves.

Nat Quinn stared at the pictures on her computer with longing. It all looked so beautiful, so relaxing, so warm. The heat practically leaped off the screen.

It was a world away from Holiday Lake, Minnesota, which had recently enjoyed a freakishly warm winter with temperatures in the negative single digits.

She glanced around her office. Boxes full of Christmas ornaments and festive greenery littered the small space, and Norman Rockwell prints and Christmas movie posters—most of them autographed— hung from the walls.

The red and green theme clashed horribly with her red hair, but it couldn't be helped. 

This was, after all, her business. Nat was a, well, specialized decorator and events manager, and her focus was all things Christmas.

After all, she lived in Holiday Lake, also known as Christmastown. Nobody took the holiday spirit lightly around this place.

Even her office furniture had a Yule theme. The winged chairs were upholstered in a green-and-red plaid and the wooden chairs around the conference table had a reindeer motif.

She didn't know where her mother had found Christmas conference chairs, but Marisol Quinn had somehow found a way. As the owner of the local antiques shop, Marisol Quinn was a force to be reckoned with, and once she set her mind to finding something, she left no sleigh unturned.

Nat sighed and looked back at the computer screen. The sparkling beaches beckoned, promising warm sand and tropical breezes.

Yes, she loved her job. Yes, she loved her hometown. But maybe, just maybe, there was such a thing as too much Christmas. She hated to admit it, but she was a little burnt out. She'd even considered selling her business. Oh, it had only been for a second, but it had happened. 

Her hand shook as she clicked on the "Buy Now" button on the screen. This was so outside her norm, she could barely wrap her head around it. She was a straight-laced, by-the-book person and she never did anything on impulse. As a professional event planner, she knew that any successful endeavor required careful planning, but she hadn't planned this at all.

She took a deep breath and let it out. It felt like sacrilege to book a plane ticket for December twenty-fourth. No good Holiday Lake resident would even think of spending the holidays somewhere else. Holiday Lake owned Christmas.

But Nat Quinn wouldn't be a part of it this year. With one little push of a button, it was done. She was now the proud purchaser of an all-inclusive trip to sunny, warm Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

It had taken her five years, but she was finally coming back.

Her reservation was not at the best hotel there by a long shot. That would be the Hotel El Mirador, a glamorous Spanish hacienda with gourmet chefs, master mixologists, and a beach so white it had been voted the World's Best Beach Sand in 2013. El Mirador had been recently remodeled and the hotel was advertising everywhere right now. She had visited the hotel's website hundreds of times, and the pictures alone made her mouth water.

But El Mirador would blow her limited budget to smithereens. The price of her cheap all-inclusive hotel, however, was absolutely right. In less than forty-eight hours, she would be sinking her toes in the hot sand and sipping a frozen drink with a little umbrella.

The front door of the office opened and the cheery Jingle Bells chorus that chimed whenever a client entered interrupted her reverie. Nat looked up guiltily.

But the parka-clad figure was Zoe Krieger, the owner of the Holiday Lake Inn, and Nat's best friend entered the office, bearing two Styrofoam containers and a cardboard drink holder with two paper cups. 

"I got it," Zoe whispered as she hurried forward, her brown eyes shining with uncharacteristic glee.

The Holiday Lake Inn's African-American owner was not known for her good humor. Keeping the town's premier lodging establishment running was not easy. Zoe was serious, strict, and functioned as the town's answer to General Patton. If she was gleeful that meant that the cause of her joy was truly out of this world.

"Really?" Nat asked, leaning forward on her elbows. "They're finally open?"

"Sort of," Zoe replied, setting the food down on the conference table. "They're doing a trial run for the town council. The restaurant looks good, but they don't have all their supplies yet." She pointed toward the plain white containers. "They assured us that they would have traditional carry-out containers by opening day on Christmas Eve."

"Isn't that tomorrow?" Nat asked, hurrying towards the feast. 

Zoe nodded, taking off her hat and mittens and dragging her fingers through her curly black hair. "They're confident that they will be able to open by 4 p.m. on December 24. They know how important Christmas Eve Chinese food is in this town."

"Will they keep the name then?" Nat asked. "Did they change the decor?"

"Yes, they will keep the 'Madame Joy's' name," Zoe replied, taking the drinks out. "And they will remodel, but they don't have the money yet. They're a young couple from San Francisco. The guy is Mrs. Joy's nephew." Zoe frowned and tilted her head, thinking. "Or is it grand-nephew? Anyway, his name is Danny Chen."

Nat smiled as the aroma of hot Chinese food wafted through the office. Madame Joy's Chinese Buffet was a long-standing tradition in Holiday Lake. The bright red-and-gold pagoda awning, so different from the town's German and Swiss architecture, had greeted visitors for generations, and the restaurant's motto, "Joy to the Wok," was featured on several billboards around the village. 

The whole town mourned when Mrs. Joy closed the restaurant so she could retire to Florida. The tourists weren't too pleased either. Christmas just wasn't the same without crispy duck egg rolls and spicy pork dumplings.

"I'm surprised the restaurant stayed closed for so long," Nat said, taking a sip of coffee. "Businesses usually get snapped up pretty quickly around here."

She raised her hand to her mouth then sneaked a quick glance at her friend, expecting a sharp question about why she had been looking up the value of small businesses in town. But Zoe was fiddling with her takeout boxes and either hadn't noticed the comment or didn't think anything of it. 

Nat let out a relieved breath. She didn't need any drama. After all, she wasn't really selling her business. She was just arranging a change of scenery. A drastic one. 

"Madame Joy wanted to keep it in the family," Zoe said as she opened the boxes, letting out a delicious, garlicky smell. "She had tons of offers, but refused to sell. I don't know what her nephew is doing here, frankly. He seems way too citified for our little town. But"—she presented the open containers proudly—"this is excellent food. I'll grant them that."

Nat bristled at her friend's "citified" comment. There was nothing wrong with appreciating an urban lifestyle. Personally, she liked the hustle and bustle of the metropolis, but she knew that few people in town agreed with her. Holiday Lake was full of small-town snobs.

Nat grabbed a plastic fork and plunged it into the greasy noodles. "It smells delicious."

"Taste it," Zoe ordered. "You're going to be impressed."

Nat dug in. The noodles were spicy, the peanuts were crunchy, and the whole dish was perfect.

"Oh," Nat moaned. "This is so good."

Zoe gave her a knowing smile. "Try the rice next. It's heaven."

Nat tried a forkful of rice. Zoe wasn't exaggerating. If angels made fried rice, this would be their recipe.

"I'm so relieved," Zoe sighed. "It's no fun with only two restaurants during the holidays. We serve American holiday food for the traditionalist and the Bavarian BratHaus takes care of the meat lovers, but there's only so much turkey and sausage stuffing a body can eat."

"We still have the Sweet Chalet," Nat corrected.

"Jecca only does desserts and cakes," Zoe said. "Man does not live on Christmas kringle alone, although it's worth a try."

Nat shrugged, twirling her fork to collect a healthy helping of sesame noodles. Jecca's signature offering, a ring of pastry filled with chocolate and peppermint, was delicious, but it wasn't a full meal. "If only the Santiago family didn't—"

"Don't even say it," Zoe warned, holding up her fork. "They go to visit family in Mexico every December. It's sacred to them."

"I know, but—" 

"Las Posadas will re-open in mid-January," Zoe said in a consoling voice. "And then you can have all the tacos you want."

Nat aimed a guilty glance at her computer. "Actually—"

But she was interrupted by another Jingle Bells chorus.

A woman wearing a blue parka and a snowflake winter hat entered. Like Zoe, she was holding two food containers and grinning.

"Did you taste the egg rolls yet?" Jecca Craig squealed.

"No," Zoe said crossly. "Because someone swooped in and stole the last ones."

"Guilty," Jecca replied, looking unrepentant. "But I brought them to share."

"In that case we might be able to forgive you." Zoe reached for the food.

Jecca took off her parka, revealing a red sweater with the Sweet Chalet's A-frame cabin logo.

Nat felt a twinge of envy. With pale skin, short black hair, and bright green eyes, Jecca looked like an adorable elf in the town's de rigueur Christmas-wear. Nat's own bright red hair, on the other hand, made her look like a color-blind lunatic when she wore seasonal colors.

 "I'm so happy right now," Jecca said. "I've been craving Chinese for—" She paused as she caught sight of Nat's computer screen. 

"Oh, my," Jecca exclaimed suddenly. "You did it. You really did it."

"Did what?" Zoe asked, an egg roll halfway to her mouth.

Jecca pointed at the screen. "She did it."

Zoe glanced at the computer. Her jaw dropped and so did her egg roll. "You're going to Mexico? For real?" she shouted.

"Yes," Nat said, not sure whether she had butterflies in her stomach, or just nausea because she'd made an unplanned leap. "The day after tomorrow, I'll be on the beach singing along to Cheeseburgers in Paradise."

"Margaritaville," Jecca opined between bites. "That's the best song."

"You're going to miss Christmas?" Zoe whispered.

"Don't look at me like that," Nat replied with a heavy sigh. "I've been working non-stop for months." She pointed at the posters on the wall. "I did five movie sets this summer, and fifteen out-of-town Christmas jobs, plus the town hall and the tree lighting in the town square, and your Inn, Zoe."

"Well, yes," Zoe said. "And it's good that you are finally loosening up and doing something impulsive like this, particularly since Ethan, but—"

"I'm sick of Christmas," Nat interrupted, not wanting to discuss Ethan Hart. "I've had it with the greenery and the berries and the carols and the Bavarian BratHaus's special Christmas sausage."

Zoe and Jecca stared at her in shock. 

"Not the Weihnachten Weiner," they whispered in mock horror.

"Fine," Nat relented, renouncing her heresy. "The sausage is good."

Zoe and Jecca sighed in a parody of relief.

"The point is," Nat continued, "I need a break. Mom is now dating Joel, so this is the first holiday I can go off on my own. Surely, you can understand that."

That was the kicker. In the past, Nat had stayed in Holiday Lake because otherwise Marisol would be alone for the holidays. But this year, her mother's long-standing friendship with Joel Schmidt, the owner of the local Christmas tree farm, had blossomed into romance.

Now was Nat's chance.

Zoe and Jecca exchanged a cryptic look.

"What?" Nat asked, immediately suspicious.

Zoe glanced again at the computer screen. "Is that non-refundable?"

"Yes," Nat replied cautiously. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason," Zoe said quickly.

"Nada, zip, zilch," Jecca chirped. "Have a good trip."

"Spill it," Nat said. "I know you're hiding something. Is it about my mom? What's going—"

But then the telephone rang, startling them all.

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