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I was flipping the pages of last year’s May issue, the steam from my black coffee circling through the air. I loved the spring, and last year I’d had an unforgettable assignment in Paris doing a full spread on a quaint back-alley community, where two families were locked in competition to create the perfect chocolates.
My fingers traced the photo of the confectionary’s broken brick façade.
“I loved the swirl-dipped truffles the best.”
I jumped at the unexpected voice, instantly torn from my thoughts and brought back to the present, in a much less pleasant time of year. “Belle,” I said. “You scared me half to death. How did you sneak into my office?”
My best friend’s bouncy mocha curls danced in front of her winning smile, her golden highlights shimmering in the filtered sunlight. “I didn’t sneak, girl,” she said, her light southern accent gently stretching out the words like a song. “You’re the one drownin’ in daydreams.”
“You loved Paris every bit as much as I did,” I said, raising an eyebrow.
“Guilty,” she said, scooting behind the desk next to me to get a good look at the magazine.
We both worked at Foodie Nation Magazine, me as a travel reporter and her as my assistant and photographer. Most of the time, our work took us to niche destinations within the country to experience the flavor of America. But our spring assignment last year took us all the way to Paris.
I’d discovered that a chocolatier in New York had learned the craft through family connections in France. When I learned about the rivalry and heard about the adorable little back-alley confectioners’ district, I knew I had to bring the story to life.
They’d resisted at first. The two families had kept their rivalry to themselves for generations—but I had convinced them that the younger generation deserved a chance to be even more successful. Every word I used to convince them was true—a positive feature article in our magazine could bring success for years, but a negative one could quickly turn a place into a ghost town, at least as far as foodie tourists were concerned.
I never liked being responsible for a destination failing, but I always insisted on being honest. That was my responsibility as a travel reporter. A destination couldn’t be fake. It had to have an authentic experience that people would enjoy, especially foodies. People spent a lot of money when they traveled, and they deserved to know what kind of experience to expect before they make the investment.
“That one was a really great shot,” Belle said, her never-ending smile somehow brighter.
Belle brought sunshine everywhere she went. Just being around her made the day more relaxing and fun, which was why she made a fantastic best friend. She was such a warm and supportive person.
“You have reason to be proud of your work,” I said. “You’re an incredible artist. Your photography captured the personality of the place, of generations of friendly competition.”
“I couldn’t do a thing without a friend like you, girl,” she said, stepping over to the French doors leading to my office’s veranda. She sighed. “I swear, I’ll never tire of lookin’ at your beautiful office. These gorgeous plants just take my breath away, hun. It’s like we’re in a floral paradise, not some stuffy high-rise office in Chicago.”
For as long as I could remember, I’d always loved plants. There was something inside me that came alive whenever I was tending to foliage. Plants were so peaceful, so still, yet so full of life and ready to respond to my care. I surrounded myself with plants everywhere—in my home and in my office. I’d even hired a horticulture student to watch my plants whenever I was out on assignment. Some people loved their pets. I loved my plants.
I closed the magazine and filed it back into the cardboard sleeve on the shelf, smiling a little. “Every time you step in here, you act like you’ve never seen my plants before.”
“They’re just gorgeous,” she said, “just like us.”
I laughed. “I think we’ve had a little too much time to think around here. We need a new assignment.”
“Oh.” Belle broke her gaze from my mini garden and looked at me. “That’s why I’m here. I almost forgot. The boss wants to see you.”
My eyes widened and I stood up. I loved the rush of a new assignment. We always went to such interesting places that I’d never been to before. I couldn’t wait to hear about my next adventure. “I sure hope Jerri has a good one for us this time,” I said. “And thanks.”
She nodded and we both walked out, Belle heading left to her office while I turned right down the hall toward Jerri’s.
“Don’t forget about the photo shoot this afternoon at Millennium Park,” she called over her shoulder.
I spun around and walked backward for a few steps so I could keep talking to her. “You know I would never miss that,” I said. “They’re finally packing up that horrible Christmas tree so we can put an end to this dreaded season. Finally, all this Holly Jolly time can go back into the crypt!”
Belle’s smile went flat, and she shook her head. “One of these days, you’re gonna find that Christmas spirit,” she said.
“Never,” I said. “It’s a ridiculous season and a useless holiday.”
“Come on, Hannah,” said Belle. “Admit that you might miss all this just a little.” She waved her hands around the hall at the gaudy Christmas decorations that were still up.
“Never,” I said with a flat smile. “I’d rather climb that Christmas tree barefoot and in a bathing suit than admit anything of the sort. You just grab your camera, and we’ll head out to the park for the dethroning of the tree just as soon as I see what Jerri wants.”
She just shook her head and smiled, walking into her office.
Belle was a wonderful friend, but she never understood why I was so against Christmas. It was a holiday for kids. I’d always told her that the foster homes I’d been in had never celebrated Christmas, so what was the point of making a fuss about it as an adult?
I never wanted to tell her the real reason. Belle loved Christmas. It was so close to her heart and one of her favorite times of the year. I didn’t want to mess up her happiness with my own negative memories.
She always wanted me to go home to Texas, as if that would suddenly solve everything and make me ring jingle bells and sing Christmas carols, but I knew better.
I knocked on Jerri’s door and waited for her to invite me in before I opened the door.
“Wow,” I said. “Would you look at that cactus? It’s beautiful. I think it’s tripled in size.”
“All thanks to you, Hannah,” said Jerri, her blue eyes sparkling in the office lighting. “It’s your green thumb that keeps it alive. Whatever you put in the watering can has made it grow so fast and just shimmer. Everyone comments about my beautiful Christmas Cactus.”
“It is something I came up with through experimenting,” I said. “And it’s a Thanksgiving Cactus, not a Christmas Cactus.”
“Whatever,” said Jerri, rolling her eyes with a crooked smile.
Jerri knew better than to discuss Christmas around me. It was bad enough that I had to put up with all the decorations around the office. They were completely unprofessional, and the only reason I ignored them was because of how happy they seemed to make Belle and my other coworkers. I hated Christmas, that was for sure, but that didn’t mean I wanted to make people unhappy. No, I just kept to myself for the holiday and let everyone else do what they wanted to do.
They all knew better than to invite me to a Christmas party. Well, Belle had certainly tried, but she was the exception.
Jerri finally stopped grinning and put on her business face. Jerri Wellington was a great person, but she was also a very serious CEO, and I respected her for it.
“So,” Jerri said. “Sit down and let’s talk about your next assignment.”
“I’m so sick of Chicago winters,” I said. “I sure hope you’re sending me to Florida, or maybe southern California—somewhere warm and sunny and away from the wintery Christmas atmosphere.”
“I’m afraid not,” she said, looking down at her coffee.
I glanced up at her with a furrowed brow. I could tell she was going to give me some bad news, but what could that possibly be? The worst she could tell me was that I was headed to Aspen or some other ski resort.
I’d rather go to a sunny beach destination, but I could stand the snow if I had to, as long as it had nothing to do with Christmas. If I had to listen to one more Christmas carol on the street, I couldn’t be held liable for my actions.
“There’s this small town—or village if you will—nestled in the valley of northwest Montana, right between two mountains.”
“Montana?” I asked.
I’d heard it could be some pretty country, but it wasn’t a top resort destination. What could possibly be happening in a little Montana village, in a valley, in January, that would require one of the top magazines in the country to go there and pick up a story?
I knew my disappointment was showing on my face, but I wanted to remain professional. I told myself that whatever this place was, it could be a fun challenge.
But Jerri’s face told me that something was most definitely wrong.
“Well…” she said, hesitating a little.
I stared at her, knitting my brows together about as far as they could go. I didn’t like this, not one bit.
She continued, trying to avoid my stare. “It seems this town, HollyWell Springs, has a historic wishing well in the center of the town. People come from all over just to visit the town and make a wish at the wishing well. They say it is a magical wishing well.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, for goodness’ sake,” I said. “What does that have to do with a food travel magazine?”
Jerri ran her tongue against the inside of her cheek as if she was trying to figure out how to tell me the worst news I’d heard all day. I sat up straighter in my chair and leaned toward her. Whatever this was, I just had to deal with it. I’d worked so hard in college to get ahead, and this truly was my dream job. I would do whatever assignment Jerri handed me.
I just couldn’t imagine what it could be that she was so afraid to tell me.
“Well,” she said. “It seems, during the first week in January, the whole town recreates dishes from a different country—Russia, I believe it is. Since we’ve never covered anything from Russia, it seems like a great time to give it a try.”
That didn’t sound so bad. I loved international cuisine, and I hadn’t tried many dishes from Russia before. Still, Jerri was suspiciously hesitant.
“Why would they spend a whole week celebrating Russian food?” I asked.
“Well, I might have left out that they celebrate Christmas feasts from other countries.”
My mouth immediately dropped into a frown. “But Christmas is over,” I said. Maybe it was just food, I told myself, not decorations, not carols.
But Jerri bit her bottom lip. “I might have forgotten to mention that in the town of HollyWell Springs, Christmas is never over. HollyWell Springs celebrates Christmas all year round.”
Jerri slid her chair back away from her desk just a little when she saw the expression on my face. I felt my face flush hot.
I was ready to explode, and Jerri was bracing for it.