Release date: November 23, 2021
Publisher: City Owl Press
Print pages: 246
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Behind the book
Sometimes, it takes a corset and an island getaway to bounce back from a disastrous breakup.
In the winter chill of New York City, Cozette Fay attempts to turn up the heat with a fun and sexy Ms. Claus roleplay. Unfortunately, her aloof boyfriend is more confused than aroused.
She says fa-la-la to her fizzled relationship and escapes to the tropics for Christmas where she meets Nico, a van-driving beach-hunk who secretly owns the hotel on private Simona Island. He upgrades her room, takes her on adventures, and can't seem to keep his eyes or his hands off of her despite claiming there's a non-fraternization policy.
It shouldn't matter that Nico won't share anything about himself outside of their tropical snow globe—she's there to reunite with herself, after all—but the closer they get, the more it seems he may be the Santa to her Mrs. Clause all year round.
Readers who enjoy Christmas with You from Tracy Alverez or The One Night Stand Before Christmas from Jana Aston would enjoy Holiday Hotel.
Whoever invented corset boning is definitely on the naughty list.
This red velvet monstrosity makes breathing problematic, and there’s marabou stuck in my lip gloss. But it will all be worth it when James walks down the hall and finds me stretched out on the living room rug.
It’s been one month, three weeks, and five days since he’s touched me or kissed me or even tried to catch a glimpse of me in the shower. I can’t remember the last time we laughed ourselves into a vigorous ab workout or the last time I earned one of his you’re-a-goof-but-you’re-my-goof grins.
That changes now.
Blowing aside the poofy ball that keeps bombarding my cheek from my Santa hat, I shift in my corset to see which angle is best. On my stomach in a pin-up pose with my ankles in the air and crossed, I think. Good cleavage angle with that one.
The clock I put on the wall yesterday says seven fifty-three, and James will be heading for the front door at eight to run. In this sexy Mrs. Claus getup, with a playful pose with my candy cane rod, I’m going to get us out of this stagnant stage in our relationship. He will love it. I wince and reconsider my hopes. He will pay attention and hopefully remember that he likes my company for more than movies on the couch.
The tight ball in my stomach could be from the steel boning tucked in crimson velvet, but my sweaty palms tell me it’s beyond that. I need more fun times and I’m going for it. Besides, Christmas is the ultimate time for antics. It’s also a time for decorations, but I’m missing those. With our recent move, that would be too much stress, according to James. That’s valid, as I take holiday decor to a ridiculous degree, but I still have antics—my wheelhouse—and it’s been a while since I allowed myself to fly free.
We need a push. We’ve been working nonstop—him at his new location and me on a particularly demanding client—all while unboxing. And we were drifting before the move, existing side by side yet alone. Maybe while making the best of this untypical holiday, I’ll start a new tradition. The Mrs. Claus surprise—pre-coffee Cozette laid out on a fuzzy white rug to set the alluring scene, ready for a fun-filled day of sexiness.
Footsteps. He’s awake and moving from the bedroom. My heart smashes against the corset’s marabou trim. I’m shocked he didn’t notice how excited I’ve been over the last few days. Was this the best idea? I shake that thought away. I think I’m sexy, and so will he. It will be fine. One deep breath and I prop the end of the thick candy cane stick in my mouth, mindful of my bright red lipstick, and throw my shoulders back, displaying my heaving bosom, which I don’t need to fake because I’m panic-panting.
“Cozette?” James asks from the hallway. “Why do you have Christmas music playing so loud?” He steps into the living room and keeps going toward the door, eyes on his phone, probably routing his morning run.
“Ahem,” I mumble around peppermint.
When he drags his eyes up, they pop in surprise for a split second, then sink into an expression he aims at me when I’ve done something out-of-bounds—a blank hazel-eyed stare, plus the slightest nose scrunch.
But no heat.
“What are you wearing?” he asks.
My eyes widen. Heat burns my cheeks at this asinine idea. I’m onstage and the one person in the audience, the man who is supposed to love and support me, just discarded his complimentary tickets to this performance.
“You know what? Fa la la you and your little dog too!” I leap up and bite back a hundred angry, hurt words that would only give him more ammunition to judge me. Sorry for trying to have a sexy Saturday before the holidays.
“I-I don’t have a dog.” He tugs at his winter running shirt and eyes the door to freedom.
I chirp a crazed note of sarcasm. “Well, get one to keep you company, because I’m gone.”
Hey, now that follow-up turned out better than expected. One micro-win for me. With a pivot on my shiny red stilettos, I catwalk down the hall. My fast strides send a chill over my bare backside, as the sexy Mrs. Claus skirt I’m wearing isn’t exactly full coverage. At least the Santa hat is keeping my head warm.
James used to have fun, used to smile at my shenanigans. He’s never been the kind to tackle me, though I’d appreciate that treatment when my lady parts are busting out of a scrap of red velvet and I’m sucking on a candy cane as if it’s the best lover I’ve ever had. Hell, it’s the best lover I’ve had in months.
I’m getting nothin’ for Christmas except a Cozette-is-weird face and a What are you wearing?
I tug my teal suitcase from the closet shelf and pitch in my clothes from the oak dresser. Everything in our bedroom is beige or wood except for two bright, patterned throw pillows I bought while James was at work. He shoves them in the closet each night, and I toss them on the bed each morning.
“What are you doing?” he asks from the doorway.
“I told you, I’m out, done, finito. It’s the motherfrolicking end scene, James.”
“Cozette.” His tone as he groans my name is an exasperated complaint about my overwhelming nature. Or that’s what it sounds like to me. “You need to tone it down. You’re upset.”
My cheeks heat again. Yes, I am upset. I’ve let this man “tone me down.” My style, my language. I’ve altered everything about me because feelings and bright things make James squirmy.
“How could I let this happen?” I whisper to myself.
I move to the closet, jerking everything that’s not black or gray off hangers and cramming it all in the suitcase. “We’ve been together for two years, and I’ve pushed myself aside to be what you want because I love you.”
I’m not feeling the love at the moment, and my heart is racing for freedom instead of embracing my this-relationship-is-over panic. That can’t be good.
“Cozette,” James grumbles, rubbing his forehead. I wait for him to continue into a reprimand as he always does. Three…two… “That’s not—”
There it is.
“No.” I slam my suitcase shut, but it won’t close all the way. I jab the cascades of unruly fabric inside with my finger. “It is the truth. Somewhere along the line, I forgot about me in this relationship. Today I let myself out, and you don’t want me. You want tame and easy and boring. I’m not that person, James. I’m sexy Mrs. Claus, and you’re not my Santa.”
“This is about sex?” He displays his palms at me, lanky fingers splayed. They haven’t been in my vicinity for too long. So long, I’m not sure I want them on me anymore. “I guess it has been a couple of weeks,” he says. “Sorry. I’ll try to—”
“Hold it right there, Jack Frost.” I jerk my bag off the bed, tuck an accent pillow under my arm, and brush by him to head toward the bathroom. “That’s the problem. You shouldn’t have to try. When it’s been over a month, and you walk in the living room to me fellatioing a candy cane while wearing this getup, the obvious path is to replace the peppermint stick with your dick. Your mind didn’t even go there.”
If our sex life had been a passionate romp long ago, I’d worry about stress from his job or the move, but that’s not it. We don’t match. Never have, and I’m not sure why I thought a relocation would somehow make things better between us.
“It’s fellating. And it’s not always about sex, Cozette.”
I shove toiletries and makeup into a shoulder bag. “No, it’s not. It’s about talking, laughing, going out, and making up words like ‘fellatioing’ because it’s more fun to say. We act like we’re settled down with kids, but we don’t even have pets tethering us to this tiny prison. Is it too difficult to leave the house on a Friday night? Maybe go to a brunch and meet other people our age? You don’t want me to explore without you, but you won’t leave the apartment. There’s a massive city out there, and I’ve gotten only as far as the coffee shop.”
“We’ve gone farther than that.” James tugs at the waistband of his running shorts. “I’d rather stay in. I enjoy our quiet time.” His monotone voice grates on the one nerve I have left.
“It’s all quiet time!” Except for now, because I’m yelling. “Not to mention, you haven’t even attempted to stop me from packing. We’re done.”
I zip the bag closed, exit the bathroom, and drag the suitcase, my laptop bag, purse, and throw pillow down the hallway, bumping into the wall twice. The stilettos aren’t helping my graceful exit.
“What do you want me to do, unpack your stuff?”
“I want you to care,” I toss over my shoulder.
At the front door, I eye my corset and gratuitous cleavage. “Ugh.” I drop everything to the floor and shuck my shoes.
James steps aside as I pass him on my way back to the bedroom. How can he not get this? Did the hundred times I’ve asked to go out not give him a clue to my state of mind? I should have gone alone, met some friends or taken on some smaller local projects, but he’d pout if I went exploring without him, and when he went in search of running routes, I had no hope of keeping up with his speedy strides.
I pause in the bedroom and take a cleansing breath. “I want you to show an ounce of emotion that the woman you claim to love is leaving you.”
The black sweatpants I left in the drawer are good enough for now. While I think it’d be poetic to walk away dressed as a holiday temptress, it’s December in New York. I’ve had frostbite-free legs for twenty-five years, and I’d like to continue that streak.
“Hey, don’t go. We can work this out. The Christmas party is tomorrow.”
I stop dead in my tracks. “Oh, is my presence requested at your holiday party? Your boss will not like this breakup one bit, and you know why? Because I’m the only one who talks. I’m entertaining.” Regathering my pile of stuff, I head to the door. “At least someone appreciates that.”
Stomping my bare feet into my boots, I shove my stilettos into my winter coat pockets, loop my laptop bag and purse over my head, and walk out the door. “I’ll pick up the rest of my stuff later.”
“Cozette,” he says from our apartment door.
The elevator dings. He’s not even going to follow? Fully dressed, with no obligations but his self-imposed running time, he stands in the hallway, one foot from the safety of home, watching me walk away.
The stupid part of me that thought he’d simply try when our relationship boiled down to this inevitable moment withers away as the elevator doors shut. Sure, he takes longer to vocalize. Unlike me, he thinks everything through before he speaks, but still. He won’t even attempt to convince me to stay?
Leaning against the wall, I wipe away a dumb, hot tear.
Two years of sweet moments had dissolved into bitter boringness.
James further dashes my teeny hope of a passionate reunion when I get to the empty lobby. He and I have watched enough romance movies to know that when one person leaves, the other sprints the stairs, or races through the airport, or borrows a flippin’ bicycle to cut off their true love’s escape.
They do anything to win them back.
But James doesn’t burst through the stairwell door, chest heaving and stammering about what a fool he’s been. I’m absolutely certain he’s already gone back into our apartment.
Oh, he’ll consider coming after me, pace the hallway while biting his thumbnail, antsy because he’s missing his typical running time. Then, he’ll call his twin and they’ll chat about how irrational and reckless I am. How my exit is one of my tantrums and I’ll return home forthwith. Except they’d never use “forthwith.” Too uncommon.
My luggage wheels rattle across beige tile as I roll my suitcase to the door. Outside the glass doors, people pass, bundled up in scarves and hats. The city is a wall of gray stone that blocks out the sky.
I have nowhere to go. We moved three months ago for James’s programming career. Since then, I’ve been working my virtual event planner job from the couch or coffee shop. The closest friends I have are the three baristas on rotation, and only one of them remembers my name. But I do exemplary work when caffeinated and free from beige everything, so that will be my think-this-through spot.
The ding of the elevator makes me jerk to attention. Maybe? Possibly? Could it be?
The doors slide open and a couple hobbles out, bundled up in near-matching gray wool coats. Snowflake-white hair peeks out from under her beret and from his fedora. He leans on a cane, and she leans on him like they’re posing for a greeting card geared toward couple goals.
How many times have they broken apart and patched themselves back together? He mumbles something laced with the rasp of decades, and her lips quirk, revealing aged beauty carved from a million laughs.
Past them, the elevator clanks shut. The glowing yellow floor number stays halted on L.
James will expect me to come back. It’s my M.O. Freak out, cool down, slink home. I’m reliable like that.
I swing open the door and slam into an arctic wall of cold. A squeak crosses my lips, promptly freezes, plummets, and shatters on the concrete. Why did I ever agree to move to this popsicle hell?
The hundreds of holiday-decorated windows a few blocks away help thaw me out a little. And it’s rumored that I can find any obscure material item in city stores. Oh, the pizza and bagels are so delicious that nowhere else in the world could hope to replicate the taste and texture, but whatever—it’s cold.
As I shiver my way to the coffee shop, cars travel the potholed grid like Pac-Man chasing dots while ghosts follow, weaving between each other and popping out of adjoining streets. All I can smell is frozen concrete and exhaust. The dancing neon mug in the window just beyond a wall of steam billowing from a sidewalk grate is a beacon in this gray, frantic world. I take the seat closest to the back to keep away from the frigid whoosh each time someone enters, but it’s still freezing. The woman next to me scowls at my haul of bags, and I refrain from flipping her off as I place my throw pillow on the seat to mark it as mine. At the counter, I’m greeted by one of the baristas who doesn’t know my name.
Marco is an aspiring actor from Venezuela. He lives in a flat with four other theater friends—one of whom steals all his rice pudding and he is not pleased. He spells my name C-O-S-E-T.
The cup of chocolate ganache peppermint espresso with cream and whip warms my hands. After one sweet sip that heats a path to my soul, I declare it the ultimate beverage for a 9:00 a.m. breakup. I fish my phone out of my overstuffed purse. No calls. Fine, then. It looks like I’m headed home for Christmas after all.
I’d told my parents we were staying in New York because of James’s new job and the holiday party, but that’s not an issue anymore. North Carolina, here I come.
Dad answers on the second ring. “I was about to call you. Hello, daughter of mine from the great big city of New York!” He sings “New York” so loud I have to pull the phone away from my ear and the scowling woman levels up her bitch-face.
When his long note tapers to silence, I tuck the phone back against my ear. “Hello, father of mine, who now gets to spend the holidays with his loving daughter.”
“What? Did James get off work for Christmas Eve?”
“No, but we broke up, and now I get to come home for Christmas.” I take a deep breath to calm the tightness in my throat. “Yay.”
The woman stops scowling and stares into her coffee cup.
“Oh, Cozette. Sorry, sweet pea. Can you work it out? You two have been together a while, and you just moved. It’s probably stress.”
It’s boredom, actually. A nonstop need to bolt to the door and be loud, reckless, and alive has been biting at my toes for a while, and that doesn’t match James’s need for the safety of dead quiet.
“Coming here with him wasn’t smart,” I say. “I thought since New York has so much to do, we’d explore and reconnect, but nothing has changed.” Except me, as I’ve tried to make myself what James needs. “I can get a ticket and fly out this afternoon.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out. Maybe you need time apart. And about Christmas…we’re in Quebec, remember?”
What are my parents doing in Canada? It’s colder there than in New York.
“Nope, I don’t recall Quebec.”
“Mom didn’t mention it? Huh.” There’s shuffling and mumbling. “Oh. Mom says she didn’t want to bug you with details during your busy season. We figured since you and James couldn’t make Christmas, we’d head up north. She’s always wanted to see the nativity tour, so we’re staying in Old Quebec, and they’ve decorated everything—I mean everything. We’ve walked into a Dickens Christmas village.”
“That sounds nice. Chilly, but nice.” I don’t want to go to Canada. It doesn’t have my carousel or smell like cinnamon pinecones.
“It is. I’d tell you to come here, but we could only book because someone canceled two minutes before we called. Hang on, and I’ll go see if there’s another room available.”
“I don’t want to interrupt. Can I go to the house?”
Dad hisses through his teeth. Ooh, that’s going to be a no.
“Oh, well, you know that Airbnb thing?” he asks, and I visualize him scrunching his face and biting his lips until his mouth disappears into his dark, gray-speckled beard. “A family rented the house for the week.”
“You let someone rent the house?” I take a long gulp from my cup, washing down the last vestiges of hope for a normal holiday.
“Yeah. They’re pleasant folks. Just a family wanting to visit the lake during the winter vacation.”
“What if they steal everything?” Someone is sleeping in my bed right now or staring at the old photos on my pin-board. I don’t live there anymore, but it’s the house I grew up in, and my parents didn’t change my space.
“We locked up the important stuff.”
“What if they have six dogs that eat all the furniture? Oh! Or they make a porno on the couch?”
“Cozette,” he chides. “Like that couch hasn’t seen its fair share of—”
He laughs in rolling melodic waves. “Sweet pea, it’s fine. I’ll check on an additional room and call you right back.”
We hang up and I pull out my laptop, opening emails. There’s one request for location research on the East Coast. Easy peasy. Another requests a forty-person full workshop design in Portland. Fun.
Too bad I didn’t have any clients over Christmas; otherwise, I could pop into one of the events I plan. Some of my clients beg me to show up in person to the conferences I set up while sitting on the couch in my yoga pants. Not having to wear a suit and heels is a massive bonus after years of doing so.
I accept the two and get to work creating new client spreadsheets. I may not know where I’ll sleep tonight, but these electronic folders are perfect: ordered, to the point, and exactly like the others—on the path to success with little fuss.
I’ve planned gatherings my entire life, starting with my fourth birthday party. When Dad told me that taking my ten best preschool buds to Disney World’s princess castle wasn’t within the budget, I sat on his lap and instructed him to look for something similar. We found a princess and unicorn duo that would come to the house for pony rides and pictures. The decorations and details were easy once the entertainment fell into place.
After that, it was friends’ parties and school functions, then city festivals. By the time I graduated high school, I’d built a résumé that some people twice my age with full college degrees didn’t have yet. A huge, international conference company hired me two weeks out of high school, and each year I received a higher title and more demands of my time.
I just get it, and I love it—the budgets, the people, coordinating a hundred things at once and having parts go wrong. There’s a thrill in having to turn on a dime and work a secret miracle to keep things appearing like they’re not falling to pieces. Everything about it is what I want in a career, except for the hours. There was no life outside of conferences. I faced hundred-hour workweeks and so many flights, I’ll have frequent flyer miles for a decade.
I made so much money in exchange for my early twenties.
My phone beeps.
It’s James. Hey, where did you go? Come back home so we can talk.
The phone chimes again, and this time it’s Dad calling.
“Hi,” I answer and brace myself for a very wintery holiday.
“Bad news, there’s nothing available. The nearest vacancy is miles away, and the innkeeper said she wouldn’t put anyone she loved there.”
I’m sad but relieved. Alone for the holidays, but not destined for the arctic. “That’s okay. I’ll think of something.”
“Need us to come back? We could go to a B&B.”
I love my parents so much. “No. You two kids have fun. I’ll let you know what I’m doing in a few.”
That puts me on the clock. If I don’t have a solid location in the next hour, the dad timer will detonate, and my parents will be on a plane and not living out their Dickens fantasy Christmas.
We hang up, and I jump feetfirst into an internet search. The potential Christmas getaways are endless. Disney? Booked. Christmas spa excursion at Hershey? Booked. A wine country Christmas in Cali? Not this holiday.
Tropical locations keep popping up in my search. Hanging out with Santa by a palm tree while I drink yuletide cheer out of a coconut? Yes, please.
The options are daunting. Hundreds of self-proclaimed paradises vying for my attention with deals that may or may not be a dream come true, and in locations I’ve never heard of.
Helena. I need Helena.
I scroll through my emails to find the best travel agent ever’s contact info. She’s assisted with many of my out-of-country event bookings and cuts the best deals.
However, booking three days before Christmas? Maybe she can work a miracle.
“Cozette,” she says, in a tone that wraps me in a winter hug. “Happy holiday season.”
“You, too. I have a request, and it needs to be speedy quick.”
I explain my predicament in less than a minute without taking a breath.
“Oh my. Give me your budget, what you’re looking for, and I’ll see what I can do. You have to leave today?”
I’d get a hotel room, but that’s not plan A. As pissed as I am, if James starts his super sad lament highlighting the good times we’ve had and poses a convincing argument about how we’ll work it out, I’ll cave. It’s best if I surrender thousands of miles away so I have time to come to my senses and realize this has gone on too long.
“I’d prefer it, yes.”
“Woman, that’s a tough order. Most flights for the tropics leave JFK in the morning, but...maybe today we’ll get lucky.” Her sweet voice whips to schoolteacher-fierce. “Give me your needs.”
She’s in business mode, and I love that about her. Someone is on my team.
“Five grand, max,” I say. “But I’d prefer under three, a week stay, tropical weather, alcohol, all-inclusive because bikinis don’t have pockets, Christmassy, and fun. Oh, but not a family resort. That’s entertainment I’m not ready for. Peaceful ocean sounds, sans screaming.”
Clicking and scribbling sound through the line. “Mmkay, I have four places in mind and your credit card on file. Do you trust me?”
“I do,” I say with a nod.
“Gonna burn up this card. I’ll call you with details.”
She hangs up without another word, and I smile into my now-chilled beverage. Still chocolaty.
The scowling woman stands and taps her fingers on my table. “Good for you, hon.”
“Thank you.” It is good for me. I’m bailing out of this coldbox and away from Mr. Boringpants. I’ll sing drunken carols with surfer Saint Nick and stick my toes in the sand on Christmas morning instead of snow.
I roll up my puffy sleeves and get cracking on venue research to keep busy. The temptation to browse the net for the tropical places Helena could send me is strong, but then I’ll fall in love with an unavailable resort, and anywhere else she finds won’t hold a candle to my long-lost paradise.
A half hour later I’m tapping my empty cup, boots propped on my luggage. The phone rings, nearly sending me into the air. I fumble it, then answer.
“Get thee to JFK,” Helena announces. “Your flight leaves in one hour and twenty-three minutes for Simona Island.”
Note to self: Plan reckless walkouts better.
When I plan conferences with clients, every detail is managed long before the event day, because frantic stress makes idiots out of intelligent people. I angle myself toward the window and open my heavy coat to create enough airflow not to pass out. I, Cozette Fay, planner of flawless events, am headed to a mysterious tropical paradise, alone for Christmas, in a corset.
I tap the airplane emblem on my phone. What will it hold when I’m on the ground and near a cell tower? If there are cell towers close to Simona Island. And what if it’s not Christmassy at all? James and I would have cooked on Christmas Eve—my family’s bûche de Noël and the Simon family’s green bean casserole. He reminded me of that in one of the fourteen text messages he sent while I was playing musical airplanes. I’ll miss the beloved cake my family has every year and munching on chestnuts while watching Christmas movies. The ocean at sunset while I sample a plethora of tropical drinks will be a decent substitution.
The posed, professional pictures of Simona Island I found while trying to distract myself from the cabdriver’s Indy 500 dreams are of white sand beaches with huts and models walking through a jungle. Hashtag posts on social media take the lion’s share of web presence, with pics of couples or incredible-looking meals. Cliff diving seems to be a thing. And the airport resembles a toolshed at the end of a country driveway.
The plane bursts through clouds, angling between a cutout of trees and bouncing down on the Simona Island runway.
I have arrived.
It’s not a toolshed. The Simona Island terminal is the color of pre-puffed dandelions surrounded by deep green ferns and palms. It’s the size of a hundred-person conference hall, with tandem sling seating, a few desks, and one unloved stanchion set that I’m sure rarely has to direct a line. There’s no gift shop or restaurant or winding luggage mover, but it’s flush with a diverse array of smiling people in shorts and green airport staff tees. They hug everyone, even poofy me in my clunky boots.
There are few people, just my flight’s passengers, who separate between a baggage claim window and the double-door exit. Now that I’m not in a panic and sprinting for an airplane, the squinty-eyed stares are more noticeable. I’m bundled up like it’s thirty degrees, when in reality it’s eighty. They probably think I have some hypothermal condition or that I’m smuggling something. The brief relaxation of getting off the plane and to the location that is an actual island flutters away and my shoulders rise.
I stick my pillow under my arm, toting my purse and carry-on toward baggage claim while flipping off the airplane setting on my phone. The first ding is a text, telling me my luggage is still at San Juan. “No,” I say, too loud, scattering the people who were already leery of the woman who doesn’t know how to dress for the tropics.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” a male voice with a slight accent asks as I’m going through my phone to see what magic Helena has concocted to get me where I need to be.
I scroll through emails, not lifting my gaze. “No. Not really. Trying to find the place I’m headed to. Blue...” I’m so frazzled, I’ve forgotten the name of the resort. “Blue, blue—”
“El Escape Azul?”
My gaze pops up to eyes the color of tropical waters. “Huh? I mean, yeah. What?”
He’s tan, scruffy, and his hair is a mess of defined waves only made possible by beach days. His smile has two teeth askew enough to be rebels among a row of perfectly poised soldiers.
“You’re not headed to El Escape, are you?” he asks.
“That’s the name! Yeah, I am.” I wince, because even children know not to give out personal information, yet here I am telling a handsome stranger my vacation spot in a foreign country.
He holds his hand out. “I’m Nico. I’m driving the shuttle this morning. You must be one of my five.” I like his light accent. He misses half his Rs. It’s European of some kind.
“Cozette.” I shake with a firmness learned from my conference days and am met with equal tension, making me smile. There’s nothing worse than someone with a floppy noodle handshake.
“Fantastic.” He glances around, then back at me. His eyes drag over my coat and boots and land on my pillow. “Um, can I get your luggage and are you traveling with another?”
A bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck, and I think the steel boning of the corset is leaving grill marks on my rib cage. “My bag didn’t make the flight.” I take an exhausted breath and check my phone again. “And will spend the night in the airport. I, uh, traveled alone.”
A lump in my throat has me swallowing hard. I shouldn’t have pushed to get out of New York so quickly. If I’d have thought this out better, I could have had backup clothes in my laptop case after packing properly or even grabbed clothes from my checked bag before throwing it on the rolling luggage bye-bye machine. I wouldn’t be carrying around a throw pillow and avoiding the gaze of the hot chauffeur who probably only carts couples around in paradise.
“Ah, that’s unfortunate.” He wrinkles his nose. It’s straight and extra adorable scrunched up. “The luggage, not coming alone. Alone is nice. El Escape has a lot of things you’ll like—snorkeling is a favorite. Come on, I’ll take you to the shuttle and come back for the others.”
I step in line with him. “What if I hate water?” If there were an ocean beside me, I’d be in it. I think the corset could pass for swimwear if I were swimming.
“Then you can dance at the club.”
“And if I don’t dance?” I’m tempted to shimmy, but force myself to stay stoic because I’m curious about the grin he’s fighting to hold back.
A gasp escapes. “You have an arcade?! I mean…” I clear my throat and get back to this serious conversation. “What if I don’t play games?”
Mischief twinkles in his eyes as if he’s hidden presents somewhere. Yeah, okay, so this is a much-needed game right now.
“Horseback riding?” he asks.
“I might be allergic,” I answer rapid-fire.
“Massage.” He responds just as quick, tucking his lip under his top teeth when he’s not speaking.
I grimace. “Aversion to touching.”
His face falls, and he shrugs one shoulder. “There’s always beer and rum.”
“There we go.” I laugh as we step outside, and hot air engulfs my face. I’m sweating in my parka, which is murdering my enjoyment of the surrounding palm trees, red flowers the size of my head, and an unfamiliar but welcoming birdsong.
Nico pauses at a sleek blue van with El Escape Azul painted on the side. If he’s a kidnapper, he’s a dedicated one. The door slides open.
“Can I take your coat?”
Ah, there’s the question. I’m frying, and if I pass out from heat exhaustion, they will take it off me anyway.
“I, um…I have had a day. Flew out of New York City and well, just...” I dance my fingers over the pillow. There’s no way to explain this without it being an overshare. “I broke up with my boyfriend while wearing a teeny, festive outfit, tossed on a coat, called the travel agent, and after a whirlwind travel itinerary that didn’t include time for a backup shirt, I’m here. Do. Not. Laugh.”
Please don’t laugh. I’m not sure I’d ever recover if I got rejected and laughed at over this getup in the same twenty-four hours.
He gives me a quizzical look, crosses his heart, and snaps his fingers like he’s made a magical oath where he will age twenty years or get poison ivy in the no-no place if he goes back on his word. Good enough for me.
In a quick move, I set the pillow in the van and shuck my coat, handing it over. Air caresses my heated skin and I fan my face. Holly bells, that feels amazing. He bites his lip, not in that playful way from a moment ago, then brings his eyes up to mine.
I blow out a lengthy breath and continue fanning the delicious tropical air over my exposed, sweaty shoulders. “I’ve changed my mind. You’re welcome to laugh. May as well. This—” I swat at the white feathers lining the teeny skirt that peeks out over the black sweatpants. “Is ridiculous.”
“It’s not ridiculous.” The double doors fly open, and a couple I recognize from the plane freezes at the sight of me. “El Escape Azul transport?” Nico asks, taking a half-step in front of me as I take a half-step behind him.
The woman points toward a waiting taxi and they move along, chatting rapidly in another language that sounds similar to Spanish.
I grab my pillow again and white-knuckle the fabric as I hold it to me. I’m not a shy person. At the hotel, if it is a hotel, I’ll buy a teeny bikini that will provide the tiniest tan lines, but I’ll wear it on a beach with everyone else wearing swimwear. A red velvet corset is out of my comfort zone, especially when I’m baring mucho cleavage to a near stranger. At least I’m cooling down. Except for my cheeks.
Nico turns, putting himself between me and the airport doors. “It’s Simona Island; people walk around in tiny, interesting things frequently, but would you like a shirt?”
I unclasp my cramped fingers from my square bodyguard to fan my face. I hope I don’t run into this guy after this.
He reaches back and tugs the neck of his blue shirt up and over his head, then drops fabric that smells of salt, vanilla, and a hint of coconut over me. Oh, wow. His shirt. That was unexpected. He holds the pillow as I thread my arms through the sleeves and tug the tee into place.
“Thank you.” I avoid his eyes for fear of finding pity, disapproval, or that look people wear when they watch a train wreck of a person do stupid shit. They want to pull their gaze away because it’s uncomfortable and awkward, but they can’t because what happens next is an utter mystery they must unravel. I’m not doing anything stupid though. I’m someone stuck on the train, and I’m trying to exit pseudo-gracefully.
My sweatpants and boots are sweltering in the heat of an unknown island I’ve run off to three days before Christmas. I’m anti-graceful. Eyes burning, I sniffle and study the clouds.
Nico makes a pity-huff and palms my shoulder with a careful touch. His thumb sweeps back and forth, cool compared to my five-hundred-degree coat. “Hey,” he says. “Whatever happened in New York is back there. Simona Island is the perfect place to leave everything behind.”
The kindness of his words doesn’t match the pointed inflection. They’re too…serious. Is he speaking from personal experience or as an observer?
He straightens, interrupting my pondering. With a grin, he hands me my pillow and opens the back of the van. “Can I put your bag back here?”
“Thanks.” I hand my stuff over and check out the lifeguard body he’s sporting as he places my bags in the cargo area. James is a long-distance runner, all lengthy muscles and no fat. But Nico…Nico is thick shoulders, a sculpted torso, and chivalry.
“Oh, wait!” I hike my sweatpants to my knees, step out of my clunky boots, and set them in the van. “May as well own this look, right?”
When I get to where we’re going, I’m going to bathe, eat, and drink a lot of alcohol to forget about this day.
“It will be the height of island fashion by morning.” He shuts the van door and points around to the front. “How about you make yourself comfortable and I’ll go grab the others. You can sit wherever you like.”
“Driver’s seat it is.”
“Fine by me. Though you had a better chance to reach the pedals in those boots.”
I head toward the van’s open door. “Don’t tempt me. I don’t get to drive much in New York, and I’m out of practice. Who the heck knows where we’d end up, and then what would your boss say?”
He gives me a wicked smirk over his shoulder as he walks through the airport doors. “He’d laugh.”
Nico returns to the van with two couples and a gentleman in a tan, nicely cut suit with a smile that is huge and porcelain against his dark skin. Nico shakes the man’s hand, standing tall. He’s only wearing swim trunks, but his demeanor is pure business. They talk with familiar, friendly murmurs I can’t catch. The man leans close and whispers something to Nico, then claps him on the shoulder, unfazed by his bare torso. I guess Nico was right that people here walk around in whatever.
His laughter carries through the open van door when he sees me hanging out in the driver’s seat. “Everyone, meet Cozette. She’ll drive us to El Escape if she can reach the pedals and memorize the island’s road maps in the next three minutes.” He raises an eyebrow at me, and the couple closest to me waves.
I grin back. “The go-pedal is the one on the right, correct? Now where are those keys?”
The woman who climbs into the first row of the van reaches out to give me a dainty handshake. She’s wearing white capris, a floral shirt, and sunglasses that take up most of her face.
“I’m Linda and not nervous at all about your driving capabilities.” She nods assuredly.
“What if I tell you I live in New York City?” I ask, crinkling my nose. “And that I haven’t driven in three months?”
“In that case, I’ll be nervous for the both of us,” answers the man behind her. He’s almost bald, but it works for him. “I’m Phil. We’re from Minnesota.” He settles next to Linda and places an arm around her.
“Nice to meet you both, and sorry about Minnesota. It must be negative ten there.” The warm air can’t stop my shiver at the thought.
They both give a weary sigh.
“It is,” Linda says. “This is a much-needed break.” She settles a hand over a puckered scar on Phil’s knee, and he kisses her head.
The other couple is young and starry-eyed, but only for each other. They talk in whispers, giggling and touching. Ah, newlyweds.
I reach for a place inside me that’s not bitter. James never acted that way with me—all handsy and sweet nothings. These two are adorable, but at the moment I consider whacking both of them with my throw pillow.
James always treated me as if I were fragile and PDAs were off-limits. Maybe it was because he met me at a trying time. I was exhausted and unsure of my future after leaving my job.
Maybe I haven’t been myself for longer than my James era.
At first, I liked how careful he was with me, even with flirting—but still, I lost my giggles soon after meeting him. When a behavior isn’t rewarded, it disappears. What else did I used to do that I’ve forgotten about? Did I lose myself when I met James, or did he help bury me deeper when I’d already encountered an avalanche?
The back door slams, and Nico jumps in the passenger side, dangling a key ring at me.
I refrain from swiping at them like a cat after a dangling string. “You cannot be serious,” I say, giving him a challenging glare.
He smirks and bobbles his head in time with the swaying keys. Tease. I snatch them and fiddle with the thick black rectangle to get the key to pop out, but it’s just a rectangle. What the hell?
“Oh no, she’s been bested by the new technologies.” He wiggles his fingers in the air. “Give up yet?”
“Never.” I check for an ignition slot, but there’s only wiper and light levers, a dashboard with a dark screen. “Holy ho ho ho, what mischief is this?”
Linda and Phil laugh, and I glance back to see the newlyweds doing their newlywed thing. I should surrender before the van starts rocking.
Nico grins in triumph as I step out of the driver’s side.
He meets me at the front and takes the keys. “It has a push button ignition in the console. Hop in and be my navigator.”
I try for a mock sneer, but my facial muscles won’t listen and instead drag my lips up as I make my way to the passenger’s side. “What kind of chauffeur are you, letting strange ladies in weird outfits do whatever they want? You would have let me drive?”
“Pssh. If you could turn on the vehicle? Of course. This is Simona Island. We aim to please.” He tucks his lip under his teeth again as he reaches for the door. “Are you pleased?”
My grin is impossible to tame. “Yeah, I am.”
Nico calls the hotel to tell them he has everyone in tow and to make a note to pick up my luggage tomorrow. He hangs up, then types away on his phone for a moment before rapping his fingers against the wheel. “We’re off.”
As we make our way on tiny roads, he points out a couple of landmarks—a suspension bridge between sharp green mountains just visible over the tree line, and an abandoned tower that was a marker for planes before the airport was built. Simona is a fourteen-square-mile private island, owned by a man who purchased it sixty years ago and named it after his beloved wife. They lived here, slowly building the island into a getaway with enough amenities like medical, grocery, and supply stores to support an active, free-spirited lifestyle, but not enough to overtax the natural landscape or become a commercialized hub of overtourism.
Nico mentions the hotel in passing, instead sharing lore about a mythical creature called the Moss Monster that is said to live in the forest next to the cliffs and lure young, delectable lovers to their doom—so don’t wander away without a guide. I find myself curled in the seat, engulfed in vanilla and coconut, facing him as he spins an alluring tale of this magical hideaway.
His eyes twinkle and his hand frequently leaves the wheel to point at things we pass or roll along with his words. Mid-sentence about how many species of birds inhabit the area—fifty-six, according to a world-renowned bird-watcher who stayed on the island for a month—he waves out the window. A woman with thick dreads down to her waist rides a chestnut horse along the road. She lifts her wide-brimmed leather hat high in the air in greeting. Even the horse seems to bob its head and flick its tail in happiness.
This is a man who loves his job, and I bet his job loves him too.
We turn at a blue-lit sign, and excitement darts around inside my body at the five-story building tucked among a bed of ferns and flowers. Alcoves of white stucco and bump-outs of blue-tinted glass squares take turns in a checkerboard pattern along the entire building. Substantial balconies with sofa-like chairs lay between each glass section. Past the modern building, a little solar-roofed hut and the ocean peek through palm trees. I lean as if my motion will magically veer the van around the building so I can get a full view of the blue water that matches the color of the windows.
I appreciate surprises. This, however, from the rainbow of flora to the interesting lines of a clearly new building to the adjoining beach on a private island…I’m flabbergasted. Helena is getting a fruit basket.
We’ve slowed, and I glance over to see Nico eyeing me.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“I think it’s going to be a glorious week.”
“It will be.” He pulls the van under a covered parking area at the front doors. Two men and two women in blue polo shirts and khaki shorts wave from the sidewalk.
Linda makes a pitchy squeal from behind me and claps her hands. “We’re here!”
“Welcome to Simona Island,” says one of the men as the van door opens.
The others greet us with waves and bright smiles.
Nico comes around to open my door. I step out of the passenger side, grabbing a few bills from my purse to hand to him, but he waves me off. “It’s an all-inclusive hotel—no tipping. But thank you.”
He holds a finger up. “Strict company policy. We don’t want visitors to worry about anything while they’re here. Stressing about who to tip and how much isn’t allowed.”
“Well, aren’t you quite the rule follower?” I grin at him.
“I am,” he tells me with enthusiasm and walks me over to the greeters with his palm against the small of my back. “Cozette, this is Ilaria. She’s lived on the island for forty years and can tell you everything about everything. I’ll be right back.” He wanders to introduce the others.
“Nice to meet you, Cozette,” Ilaria says with a pretty lilt, taking my hand in both of hers. “I’ll be your personal concierge during your trip. If you need anything at all, you will have me on speed dial during your stay.”
Concierge? Sneaky Helena is Santa Claus.
“Thank you. It’s beautiful here. Nico was regaling us with tales of the Moss Monster.”
Ilaria shows off a mouthful of small, pearly teeth. “Yes, those myths kept my daughter out of trouble, mostly.” She purses her lips in a proud taunt.
Nico returns and hands me my pillow, then passes my bag and coat to Ilaria. “Ilaria will take excellent care of you, and we will bring your luggage tomorrow. I can provide you with a few more shirts if you need them until then.” That tucked-lip thing he does is a dead giveaway to his teasing. It pops out, and he glances at Ilaria. “Oh, or Ilaria can show you the gift shop, but it has limited clothing. If you’re so inclined, you can schedule a private jet to the mainland, where there’s a mall.”
“I’ll make do. Thank you, Nico.” He was a pleasant welcome to this place. Too bad he saw me frazzled and sweaty in a corset and now I have to hide from him for the rest of my stay. Except to return his shirt.
“Enjoy El Escape, Cozette.”
“I will,” I tell him, matching his serious tone.
He holds my eyes until he gets back into the van and runs a hand over his mouth before gripping the wheel. The youngest of the two men lifts his chin like he’s showing off his strawberry blond almost-beard as he makes his way to the passenger’s side and waves at us, grinning as the van pulls away. Everyone here is so friendly.
I take a deep breath and face Ilaria, whose dark-brown eyes crinkle at the edges. She tilts her head toward the doors, bouncing her shoulder-length black spirals that glisten with little streaks of silver. “Ready?”
So much. “Sure.” I wave at Linda and Phil, then the honeymooners who aren’t paying attention. “I’m sure I’ll see you all around. Have so much fun.”
“You, too, Cozette,” Linda says as they head inside.
I ooh and ahh at the whimsical twisting lighting, white surfaces, and pops of orange that tie in a clean, modern design. The seating is sleek but plushy enough to make me want to curl up with a book. A map of Simona Island takes up most of a wall next to a Christmas tree decorated with silver and gold ornaments and shells.
Ilaria waves at the front desk attendants, standing behind a glowing blue egg that’s draped with ferns decorated with festive ribbons. The woman with nearly shaved teal hair and a mask of freckles introduces herself as Jennifer and passes me a clipboard to sign while she checks my passport, then Ilaria and I follow the glass floor tiles patterned in a wave. She doesn’t appear bothered by my odd attire and points down a hall with a hot pink manicured fingernail. “There’s the shop where you can get sunscreen, clothing, bags, and souvenirs. Around the corner are the cafe and dining hall. The spa is downstairs.” She directs me to the elevator. “You’re from New York City?”
“No. I’m from North Carolina, but I’ve been living up there for a few months.”
“I’ve never been to the city, but I watch every musical that comes out on video and download every soundtrack I can find.”
“I’ve been to a few shows.”
“Really?” Her lips part as if she wants to ask, but she pauses, then smiles. “I’ve always wanted to go, but I want to take at least a couple of weeks, and finding time like that can be difficult.”
Don’t I know it. It’s hard to get away from events and the tourist industry. Especially if you love what you do, which she seems to from her bubbly bounciness. “On Broadway, everything is good.” At least it was when I went on a high school overnight field trip and smashed three shows into our itinerary.
We step up to a brushed nickel elevator, and as soon as Ilaria pushes the button, it opens. It’s fancy inside, with pristine mirrored walls. Ilaria pushes the number five, igniting a soft white glow. She explains the schedule for food—whenever I want something. Drinks—just call for delivery. Activities—the island is my merry little oyster.
I’m tempted to hopscotch the hallway of plush carpet patterned with beige and blue waving lines, but I don’t know this person yet. There’s a lot of space between each dark wood door, recessed in a lit blue alcove, and I try to figure out the layout of the rooms. There are only five glowing blue spots down the long hallway. Maybe they’re shallow? The upper floor wasn’t smaller, because the building is a box. At least the front side is, but why would the upper level be so narrow?
She turns to an entry pad on Room 5-C and scans a card that hangs on a lanyard around her neck. The buttons give beepy whispers under her fingers. “Okay, Cozette, type in a four-digit number you can remember so you can get into your suite. You can also use that code to pay for spa experiences and shop items.”
“Ah, what a good idea.” I enter Dad’s birthday month and year.
The door opens and my voice escapes in a squeak. Floor-to-ceiling windows display a hundred shades of blue between the sky and ocean. There’s a couch with a wild geometric pattern and plushy bright pillows and blankets, a desk, and a kitchenette of glass cabinets and marble counters. A Christmas tree twinkles in the room’s corner. White lights, sapphire and silver balls, and a variety of ocean-themed ornaments like starfish and sand dollars deck the fake balsam pine.
“It’s so beautiful,” I whimper and step inside. The living room carpet is thick and soft.
Ilaria wasn’t kidding—this is an actual suite. I thought I had a standard room, but this is twice the size and doused in luxury. There’s an open door I follow to a teal bedroom with a huge lit wreath above a king-sized bed. The comforter is white—acceptable with the bright walls—and has a team of pillows, some white, some orange, cuddling against the bamboo headboard. I add mine to the mix and sure enough, the swirling mandala of colors looks perfectly in place, except mine is missing its mate. I should have taken them both from that dark, cold world of beige.
“This is not a standard room,” I say, staring out the wall of windows to the balcony. Palm trees dot white sand like candy canes sticking out of snow. Couples sit in lounge chairs or walk hand in hand down the beach. I won’t loop my arm in the crook of James’s elbow ever again, but it’s fine, I think. I need a book, coffee, and that balcony.
“Well, when the boss asks if there’s an available suite for an upgrade and there happens to be two, you get my favorite.”
“He’s so secretive.” She throws me a wide grin like we’ve been friends a good, long time. “He hates it when I call him that. How long have you known Nicolai?”
Wait, what? I turn as she sets my bag on the dresser and opens a drawer. “Nico? I met him at the airport.” He drove the van. Shirtless. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I rather enjoyed the tour and show, but he’s so…I rub at the wrinkle between my eyebrows. Fun. He was fun and kind and completely disarming. “He’s the boss?”
As she hangs my coat in a closet between the room and bathroom, her smile fades. She studies my face and straight-up winces. “Ooh, oh my. I thought with the shirt,” she says, signaling to my attire. “And he doesn’t make requests such as this one. He didn’t explain.” Her voice continues to elevate in distress. “And the way he…ai, apologies, Cozette. I thought you two were…friendly.”
I crack a smile. “He’s very friendly.”
“He, uh, is.” She doesn’t seem comforted by that though. “He’s also very private and does not like anyone to know he’s the owner of El Escape.”
“Oh.” Not just the boss, but the owner. How? What? My thoughts scatter like snowflakes in a gust of wind. I’ve met a lot of owners of hotels and corporations, and I couldn’t picture one of them driving a van shirtless. Even the owner of the van company.
Why does he pose as a driver? Maybe he’s tired of sales calls. Or maybe he likes to wear Santa swimwear without judgment. Oh! Or maybe he’s a rich Mafia heir hiding from other mobster families. He was gangster charming, after all.
I raise my hands up in a shrug. “Well, I thought he was kind and down-to-earth.” And hot as noon in the tropics. Entertaining too. “His secret is safe with me. I won’t say anything.”
She takes a relieved breath. “Thank you. He’d appreciate that, as would I.” She glances around the room, then back at me. “Would you like to dress and then I can take you for a tour?”
“My luggage was delayed and, in my haste, I didn’t pack my carry-ons properly. Hence the shirt.” I signal to Nico’s shirt. Nicolai, the owner. So weird. “I need to stop at the gift shop. Also, I’m starving.” I tilt my head to the side and stretch my neck. “I took a flight out at ten-thirty this morning and have had cookies and a pack of peanuts since then.”
She shoots me a real grin and pulls out her phone. “Then how about I get some appetizers and drinks sent to the shop? We have bathing suits and they are fabulous.”
I give her an appreciative smile. I can forgo a shower for food and alcohol. Besides, what would I dress in? “Sounds perfect. Show me this paradise.”
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