In this sparkling new Christmas novel by #1 New York Times bestselling author Fern Michaels, four close friends get together for a skiing vacation filled with a few unexpected bumps—and lots of laughter …
When longtime friends Amy, Frankie, Rachael and Nina reunited for a holiday singles cruise, it not only deepened their bond, it changed their lives. Now they’re getting together for another adventure, and what better winter setting than a fabulous ski lodge? Crisp snow and fresh air by day, cozy fires and delicious food by night, capped off by meeting up with their significant others for a New Year’s Eve celebration—it’s perfect.
At least, it’s perfect until Frankie decides to go snowshoeing alone. When she twists her ankle right after losing her phone in the snow, Frankie wonders how she’ll be able to summon help—only to be rescued by a reclusive Grizzly Adams lookalike who lives nearby and introduces himself as Troy Manchester.
Troy saves the day by helping the injured Frankie back to the ski lodge, but in the process, encounters a part of the L.A. life he’s tried to leave behind. Nina, visiting the gift shop to buy magazines for a recuperating Frankie, is similarly shocked to glimpse someone to whom she was once connected.
Even in this unlikely spot, it seems there’s no way to avoid their pasts. And as the mischievous Rachael and her sidekick Amy go to great lengths to patch up old friendships and spread the spirit of the season, the New Year may contain all kinds of new beginnings …
Release date: September 26, 2023
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 272
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Santa and Company
The anxiety-producing holiday was six months away, so each of them thought they might be saved from the dreaded ship of lonely, desperate fools. Fortunately, the cruise wasn’t the disaster they had thought it could be, and each of them began new chapters in their lives.
What all four women had in common besides graduating from the same high school was their passion for their work. Most men found it intimidating to be with a woman who was smart, successful, and attractive, leaving just a handful of eligible men who didn’t feel threatened or overshadowed by their partner.
The four friends approached the high jinks on the high seas as an entertaining escape, if nothing else. Yet each of them had experiences that changed the course of their lives. Maybe not forever, but at least up until now.
The instigator of the cruise, Francesca (Frankie) Cappella, discovered romance was right around the corner from her Manhattan apartment. Giovanni Lombardi, brother and partner at nearby Marco’s Restaurant, offered to look after her cat Bandit while she was on the cruise. Across the sea and thousands of miles away, the universe was working behind the scenes to bring Frankie and Giovanni together upon her return.
For Frankie, it was a wonderfully comfortable relationship. For the most part, Giovanni was as married to the restaurant as Frankie was to her publishing career. Both appreciated the affection and attention of the other without the insecurities and demands other partners had put on them. Frankie knew the elephant in the room was the word marriage. Neither broached the subject, and their friends and family had the good sense to keep their lips zipped.
Rachael Newmark, the second member of the foursome, had the reputation of being a major flirt. “Boy crazy” was often used to describe her, despite her protestations. She was coming off a messy divorce followed by a string of unhappy relationships. But it was her passion for dancing that recharged her self-worth when she opened a dance studio in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Her talent was her introduction to Henry Dugan, a dance virtuoso who spent every year on the cruise ship raising money for his organization, Let’s Dance, a program to enrich the lives of underprivileged children. He was more than a decade older than Rachael, but that seemed to be working for her.
Nina Hunter was starring in an extremely popular sitcom when she was told the series was canceled while she was aboard the ship. Fortunately, her writing talent caught the eye of a colleague, who opened a new and exciting opportunity for her. The stipulation was she had to move from LA to New York. It took two blinks, and she was ordering packing materials. She was ready for a big change. While she convinced herself she wasn’t ready for romance, it, too, presented itself. What began with snarky banter at the opening cocktail party became the basis for interesting, deep, intellectual, and often hilarious conversations. They say the way to get into a woman’s pants is through her brain. Make her laugh. Seal the deal.
Nina and Richard shared a similar interest in the arts, theatre, books, and music. He was an attorney in Philadelphia, which allowed them to continue their new relationship. He was only an hour drive or a train ride away.
Amy Blanchard was a brainiac. She worked as a bioengineer at a firm in Silicon Valley, but academia was her true love. She applied for a position at MIT as an associate professor. It would mean a major move across the continent and a decrease in her salary, but it was her dream job. Eventually she would figure out her finances with the help of Peter Sullivan, an accountant she met on the cruise. He lived in Connecticut, a much shorter commute than Northern California. In Peter, Amy found someone who loved solving math puzzles, whether they were business-related or for sheer entertainment. It was true nerd love.
Nina, Frankie, and Amy agreed they had almost perfect situations. No one was smothering them, yet it was comforting to know there was that one special person out there. As for Rachael? The jury was still out. No pun intended. Richard once referred to Rachael’s relationships as “one mistrial after another.” Sure, it sounded cruel. But Richard was a pragmatist. His assessment was remarkably close to the truth.
Amy’s father, William Blanchard, had not been part of the original plan, but after his golfing buddies canceled their weekend in Florida, he decided as long as he was already there, he might as well take advantage of the opportunity to see a few sights, eat, drink, and socialize. A cruise sounded like just the ticket. His daughter was off with some friends, and his ex-wife? Well, who cared? He booked his ticket to the ocean air and relaxation.
The day the women boarded the ship, Amy thought she was having “dad sightings,” but Frankie convinced her it was just guilt about leaving her father alone for the holidays. While on the ship, the four gal pals became acquainted with a slightly older woman named Marilyn. One evening, Marilyn canceled their dinner plans, saying she was “meeting someone.” The women were concerned she might be seduced by a charming lothario looking for a rich widow, so Amy and Frankie stalked Marilyn, only to discover the “someone” was Amy’s father. Surprise!
A year after the cruise, the five couples, including William and Marilyn, met for New Year’s Eve at The Ridgewood Country Club. As they reminisced, they agreed the trip had been a magical adventure, but one never to be repeated. And yet... “never say never” had always been one of Frankie’s favorite expressions.
After the New Year’s Eve “reunion-reunion,” as Frankie liked to call it, everyone promised to see each other more often, but time slipped through their fingers as jobs, family, distance, and other obligations demanded attention. This year, Frankie vowed to bring the crew together again, even if she had to drive everyone to . . . where? That was the big question.
It was two weeks before Thanksgiving when Frankie pulled open her laptop and sent a Zoom call invitation to her friends with a note: Make yourself available! Love ya, miss ya, Bossy Pants.
The following evening, people were dialing in. Amy’s face was the first to pop onto the screen, then Nina’s. Frankie was already online.
“Hey, girls!” Frankie smiled and blew kisses with both hands.
Amy and Nina returned the affectionate gesture, and then Amy asked, “Where’s Rachael?”
Frankie pursed her lips. “I think it was me.”
“What do you mean, it was you?” Nina leaned into her camera so that her face filled the little box on the screen with her name under it.
“Yeah? What?” Amy echoed.
“About six, maybe eight weeks ago, she left me a voice-mail dump. You know when someone leaves a three-minute message about everything that’s going on in their lives? And then they end it with something like, ‘I want to know what’s going on in your life, but I need to find a plumber, so I won’t have time to talk to you for a few days.’” Frankie mimed a double take with her phone. “Seriously? You want to know what’s going on with me, but I have to make an appointment? I found that quite irritating.” Frankie paused. “And self-serving.” She bit her lip, as she often did when in deep contemplation.
Nina was nodding in agreement. Amy’s head was cocked to one side, the light shining on the purple streak in her hair.
Frankie continued. “I cannot tell you how many hours I listened to tales of her boyfriend woes, down to the minutiae of each relationship.” Frankie let out a huff. “I know. I must sound mean, but for criminy sakes.”
It was Amy’s turn to lean into the camera. “So what did you do?”
Frankie raised her eyebrows. “Well . . . I left her a message saying I could not believe I had to make an appointment to speak to her. And then ended it with, ‘what if I needed you now?’ ”
“Good point. We’re supposed to be here for each other,” Nina said. “Have you heard back from her?”
“Nope. Nothing. Zero. Nada. Niente.” Frankie rapid-fired her response.
“Not even a text? Geez, even Blinky and Gimpy can send a text. Well, almost.” Amy grinned at the mention of her cats. “I’m still working on it.” It caused a little chuckle but did not change the indignant mood.
“No. No email. Absolutely nothing.”
“You would think she would reach out to see if you were all right?” Nina said sharply.
Frankie continued. “A few weeks later, I sent her a beautiful e-card for her birthday. I know it was delivered, but still nothing.” Frankie folded her arms. “So?”
“Wow. And she didn’t respond to the card, either?” Nina said, staring at the screen.
Frankie shook her head. Her eyes were welling up a bit. “I know. Like I said, it may sound mean, but she has a slew of support people who can jump through hoops for her. I’m no rocket scientist, but it seems our friendship isn’t that important to her.” Frankie wiped the one tear that escaped and was running down her cheek. “Each year, when I add another candle to my birthday cake, I try to add one line of wisdom. This year it was to simply lower my expectations.”
“How sad is that?” Nina winced.
“Anyway, let’s move on, please,” Frankie said.
“Agreed!” Amy said, with her usual big grin.
Frankie began to discuss her idea. “It’s been a year since we have all been together in the same room, and two years since our wild and crazy escapade.”
Nina and Amy were nodding in agreement, and then Nina’s eyes brightened. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Which I might be thinking, too?” Amy added. “But wait. What are we thinking?”
Frankie started. “Meet up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s. Four, maybe five days?” Frankie cocked her elbows and turned her palms up. “Yeah? Maybe?”
Nina squinted. “I have to go out to LA to finish the last season of the sitcom. My agent is leaving town on the twenty-seventh for Hawaii, and we have to wrap up some details. So I’m flying out on the twenty-sixth to sign papers and go over the audition tapes for the final episodes.”
“How are you doing with all that?” Frankie was referring to the fact that Nina’s show had been canceled after two seasons.
“That’s two for two. First acting, and now writing.” Nina shrugged. “That’s showbiz. I know this will sound cliché, but I genuinely appreciate the experience.” She took a bow.
“Got any ideas floating in that creative head of yours?” Frankie gave her a smile of encouragement.
“Ooh. Maybe a tell-all,” Nina said sarcastically. “Except the story has been told repeatedly.”
“Don’t the networks always say they’re giving people what they want?” Amy asked innocently.
“No, honeybunch,” Nina corrected her. “They are telling people what they want to watch. It’s no surprise streaming makes up almost forty percent of television viewing. But please don’t get me started.” She held her hands up in a “time out” gesture.
“Right,” Frankie broke in. “Amy? What’s your schedule?”
Amy lowered her head. “I have an interview at Stanford. They called me about a professorship, but the only time I had available was during the holiday break. I offered to do it on Zoom, but they want to show me all the amenities. Wine and dine me, I suppose.”
“Wow! Amy!” Frankie shouted.
“Whoa. Wait.” Nina jumped in. “As in moving back to California?”
Amy blinked. “Yes.” Her expression was odd. It was as if it had suddenly occurred to her. She would have to move three thousand miles away.
“Amy?” Frankie asked softly. “You okay?”
She blinked again. “Yes. Yes, I’m okay. What was I thinking?” She made a funny face and slapped her hand against her forehead. “Duh.”
“Back up,” Nina said. “You have an interview at Stanford?”
“Yes. At one time I thought it would be the highest level of accomplishment for me, but now, I’m ambivalent. I actually love my job at MIT. And my friends. And my life. I was so flabbergasted and flattered at the sheer thought of being considered, I didn’t think the offer through. But the more I’m deliberating, it’s really not as wonderful as I had imagined.” She shut her eyes, furrowed her brow, and pouted her lips.
Frankie chuckled. “You are the epitome of the absent-minded professor. You get an interview, but the scope of the situation escapes you?”
“How have you made it this far without getting hit by a bus?” Nina laughed.
“I take taxis.” Amy giggled. “Kidding. So I suppose I should cancel the interview.”
“No. Don’t do that. If they are paying your way, you should go. See what they are offering. You don’t have to say yes, but it might give you some bargaining power to get a raise at MIT, or a grant for a special project.” Frankie was now wearing her negotiating hat. Yes, being an editor required a lot of that. With agents, authors, publishers, salespeople.
“I have an idea.” Nina jumped in. “Why don’t we meet in Tahoe? I can drive up from LA, and Amy can drive in from Stanford.”
“Sure! That would be fab! I haven’t been to Tahoe in a long time.” Amy clapped her hands.
“I can’t remember when I was last there.” Frankie thought back to the time when she and her now ex-boyfriend Scott spent their last romantic weekend together in Lake Tahoe. Shortly thereafter, everything fell apart. Too much drama with the ex-wife, the kids, the house. All of it. As her dad put it, “You can’t fault a man who wants to be with his son.” Sadly, Frankie agreed, and for the past ten years, Scott had called to wish her a happy birthday.
Amy’s eyes got wide, recalling Frankie and Scott’s breakup. “Oh, wait. Isn’t that the last time you and Scott were together?” She paused. “If it will bring up bad memories, we can pick another place.”
“No. Actually, it’s fine. I am so over it. It will be a new experience in a gorgeous setting.” Frankie remembered the clean air and beautiful landscape, although in all honesty, she would have preferred somewhere warm, with beaches, and palm trees.
“Yay!” Amy clapped her hands again. “What about Rachael?”
Frankie sighed. “I have no problem with her joining us, but I am not going to be the one to invite her.”
“Harsh?” Nina raised her eyebrow. “It’s not like you to cross someone off your list.”
“No, not harsh, but yes, it is like me. I let people push me over and over, and then when my back is against the wall, I put my foot down. If they’re lucky, that’s the only place I put my foot.”
Amy couldn’t help but giggle.
Frankie smirked and continued. “If she really wanted to know what was going on in my life, she would have contacted me.”
Nina continued. “Here’s what we’ll do, Frankie. Amy and I will give you available dates; you set it up for a four-bedroom cottage, townhouse, or whatever is available. It’s a little short notice, but I trust you’ll work your magic.” She paused to take a breath. “Once we have the info, Amy and I will send Rachael the deets. I’ll act as if I know nothing about your situation. If she brings it up, I’ll tell her it’s between the two of you. If she wants to come, she will be welcome.”
“That sounds very reasonable. Thanks,” Frankie said.
“It is very reasonable,” Amy agreed.
Frankie let out a sigh of relief. “Okay! We’re going to Lake Tahoe.” Then she burst out with, “Oh, by the way, did I ever tell you I don’t know how to ski?”
Nina and Amy let out raucous guffaws, yippees, and woo-hoo s. They were so loud, it startled Bandit, who had been sleeping comfortably on his big cushion in the corner. Frankie turned to the cat with his puffed-up tail. “It’s okay, bubbie . . . just us girls getting excited.” He blinked, stretched, got up, and circled the bed twice before he got comfortable again.
“I’ll start looking into it. Nina’s right—we’re kinda late in the game here, but I’ll see what I can do,” Frankie said.
Amy jumped in. “Wait! Aren’t you forgetting something? What about the guys?”
Nina and Frankie started to laugh. “Oops.”
“Richard isn’t expecting me back until after the first,” Nina said.
“And Peter wants to visit his brother in Harrisburg. I already told him I’m not ready for the big family whatever and want to spend time with my family.” Amy nodded. “To be honest, I said I might go to some reunion, but didn’t tell him about Stanford.”
“Why not?” Nina looked surprised. “How long have you known about this interview?”
“Just a week, but it would have started a conversation I’m not ready to have. I was enjoying the fantasy, I suppose. And I wasn’t thinking about anyone else. It’s that big picture thing I don’t seem to have.”
“Because you spend too much time staring into a microscope,” Frankie noted.
Amy looked up. “Good point. I’ll continue to use it as my excuse.” She giggled. “Okay, so where were we?”
“Planning our girls’ getaway.” Frankie’s eyes sparkled. “Giovanni can’t leave the restaurant. It’s crazy busy with holiday dinners. So? Looks like we are on our own!”
“Uh-oh.” Amy snorted.
“We are doing this!” Frankie’s smile was gleaming. “Get me those dates before you go to bed tonight.”
“You got it, kiddo.” Nina gave her a two-finger salute.
“Yessiree Bob!” Amy’s exuberance could be either exhilarating or exhausting. It depended on what time of day it was.
They said their goodnights and hit the button that ended the meeting. Frankie leaned her back against the bottom of the sofa. Bandit stretched and sauntered over to where she had been sitting on the floor with her laptop on the coffee table. She scratched his neck. “Sorry, pal, I should have checked with you first. I am sure Giovanni will take good care of you. I will only be gone for four darks.” She always spoke in terms of darks and lights when explaining her absences to him. She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the head. “You need a playmate. I know, I know, I keep saying it. I’m such a loser.” He rolled over onto one side so she could stroke his belly. “Mommy’s not a loser?” She scratched him under his chin. “Okay! When I get back from Tahoe, we will find you your own little pal.” Bandit seemed to agree as he rolled over to the other side. Then he gave her a look as if to say, I’m holding you to it, lady.
Frankie pushed herself away from her desk, stretched her arms as high as she could, and tilted her head from side to side. She looked down at the right corner of her monitor. It was already 8:30 p.m. An exceedingly long day. She wondered how everyone was enjoying the traditional lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree.
Her team was on a very tight deadline to get the final page proofs to the production department before everyone scattered over the holidays. Frankie recalled the dozens of times she’d observed the tradition of the lighting of the glorious tree at Rockefeller Center. It was the best kickoff to the holiday season. Some of her staff had never experienced this celebration, so Frankie volunteered to stay late and get the pages turned in, allowing her colleagues to join in the merriment.
Frankie loved the holidays, but with her family scattered across the country, it had become more stressful to try to accommodate everyone’s schedule. Instead of the big Italian family gathering for a five-hour feast, now her parents would drive into the city and enjoy their Christmas dinner at Marco’s. The one thing Frankie’s mother didn’t miss was all the work involved in preparing two big meals. It was fun when there were a half-dozen people to whom she could assign duties: Frankie grated the cheese and set the table; Aunt Millie made the meatballs and the braciola; and her two grandmothers made the pasta, laying out the cut dough on a piece of plywood Frankie’s father would place on top of the bed to allow the pasta to dry. Now the group was smaller, and there were fewer hands to pitch in.
But this new arrangement suited Frankie’s parents fine and included Christmas Eve dinner when they celebrated with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, known in Italy as La Viglia. It wasn’t necessarily a religious thing unless food was your religion. And most of the time it was Frankie’s. At work, she was often described as the “Big Cheese,” ever since she brought in the major best-selling cookbook, Formaggio Mio!
It began as a joke when she was having dinner at Marco’s, her boyfriend’s family’s restaurant. Without fail, each meal started with an antipasto served on a wooden plank; the dish consisted of cured meats including prosciutto, salami, and capicola, or as some pronounced it, gabbagool. In addition, there would be a variety of cheeses from sharp provolone to creamy burrata. And no respectable meal would be without crusty bread, olives, and extra-virgin olive oil for dipping. If you wanted to get fancy, you might add grilled artichoke hearts and roasted peppers.
One evening, a new busboy tried to remove the platter with a few pieces of remaining cheese. Without any hesitation, Frankie let out a loud, “Formaggio mio!” causing the young man to drop the platter back on the table. She and Giovanni looked at each other and howled. Once they regained their composure, they formulated the idea of a book about cheese. It wouldn’t be fancy, but a fun look at the history of cheese, the different varieties, simple hacks to make a meal better, and ways to serve.
. . .
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