This funny, charming and heartwarming new Christmas novel is USA TODAY bestselling author Sarah Morgan at her festive best!
In the snowy perfection of Aspen, the White family gathers for youngest daughter Rosie’s whirlwind Christmas wedding. First to arrive are the bride’s parents, Maggie and Nick. Their daughter’s marriage is a milestone they are determined to celebrate wholeheartedly, but they are hiding a huge secret of their own: they are on the brink of divorce. After living apart for the last six months, the last thing they need is to be trapped together in an irresistibly romantic winter wonderland.
Rosie’s older sister, Katie, is also dreading the wedding. Worried that impulsive, sweet-hearted Rosie is making a mistake, Katie is determined to save her sister from herself! If only the irritatingly good-looking best man, Jordan, would stop interfering with her plans…
Bride-to-be Rosie loves her fiancé but is having serious second thoughts. Except everyone has arrived – how can she tell them she’s not sure? As the big day gets closer, and emotions run even higher, this is one White family Christmas none of them will ever forget!
When her phone rang at three in the morning, ripping her from a desperately needed sleep, Maggie’s first thought was bad news.
Her mind raced through the possibilities, starting with the worst-case scenario. Death, or at least life-changing injury. Police. Ambulances.
Heart pounding, brain foggy, she grabbed her phone from the summit of her teetering pile of books. The name on the screen offered no reassurance.
Trouble stalked her youngest daughter.
“Rosie?” She fumbled for the light and sat up. The book she’d fallen asleep reading thudded to the floor, scattering the pile of Christmas cards she’d started to write the night before. She’d chosen a winter scene of snow-laden trees. They hadn’t had a flake of snow in the village on Christmas Day for close to a decade. They often joked that it was a good thing their last name was White because it was the only way they were ever going to have a White Christmas.
She snuggled under the blanket with the phone. “Has something happened?” The physical distance between her and Rosie made her feel frustrated and helpless.
Everyone said global travel made the world smaller, but it didn’t seem smaller to Maggie. Why couldn’t her daughter have continued her studies closer to home? Oxford, with its famous spires and ancient colleges, was only a few miles away. Rosie had done her undergraduate degree there, followed by a master’s. Maggie had loved having her close by. They’d taken sunlit strolls along cobbled streets, past ancient honey-colored buildings and through Christchurch Meadows, golden with daffodils. They’d followed the slow meander of the river and cheered on the rowing crews. Maggie had hoped, privately, that her daughter might stay close by, but after Rosie had graduated she’d been offered a place in a US doctoral program, complete with full funding.
Can you believe it, Mum? The day she’d had the news she’d danced across the living room, hair flying around her face, twirling until she was dizzy and Maggie was dizzy watching her. Are you proud of me?
Maggie had been proud and dismayed in equal measure, although she’d hidden the dismayed part of course. That was what you did when you were a parent.
Even she could see it was too good an opportunity to turn down, but still a small part of her had wished Rosie had turned it down. That transatlantic flight from the nest left Maggie with email, Skype and social media, none of which felt entirely satisfactory. Even less so in the middle of the night. Had Rosie only been gone for four months? It felt like a lifetime since they’d delivered her to the airport on that sweltering summer’s day.
“Is it your asthma? Are you in hospital?” What could she do if Rosie was in the hospital? Nothing. Anxiety was a constant companion, never more so than now.
If it had been her eldest daughter, Katie, who had moved to a different country she might have felt more relaxed. Katie was reliable and sensible, but Rosie? Rosie had always been impulsive and adventurous.
“I’m not in hospital. Don’t fuss!”
Only now did Maggie hear the noise in the background. Cheering, whooping.
“Do you have your inhaler with you? You sound breathless.” The sound woke the memories. Rosie, eyes bulging, lips stained blue. The whistling sound as air struggled to squeeze through narrowed airways. Maggie making emergency calls with hands that shook almost too hard to hold the phone, the terror raw and brutal although she kept that hidden from her child. Calm, she’d learned, was important even if it was faked.
Even when Rosie had moved from child to adult there had been no reprieve.
Some children grew out of asthma. Not Rosie.
There had been a couple of occasions when Rosie was in college when she’d gone to parties without her inhaler. A few hours of dancing later and she’d been rushed to the emergency department. That had been a 3:00 a.m. phone call, too, and Maggie had raced through the night to be by her side. Those were the episodes Maggie knew about. She was sure there were plenty more that Rosie had kept to herself.
“I’m breathless because I’m excited. I’m twenty-two, Mum. When are you going to stop worrying?”
“That would be never. Your child is always your child, no matter how many candles are on the birthday cake. Where are you?”
“I’m with Dan’s family in Aspen for Thanksgiving, and I have news.” She broke off and Maggie heard the clink of glasses and Rosie’s infectious laugh. It was impossible to hear that laugh and not want to smile, too. The sound contrasted with the silence of Maggie’s bedroom.
A waft of cold air chilled her skin and she stood up and grabbed her robe from the back of the chair. Honeysuckle Cottage looked idyllic from the outside, but it was impossibly drafty. The ventilation was a relief in August but froze you to the bone in November. She really needed to do something about the insulation before she even thought about selling the place. Historic charm, climbing roses and a view of the village green couldn’t compensate for frostbite.
Or maybe it wasn’t the house that was cold. Maybe it was her.
Knocked flat by a wave of sadness and she struggled to right herself.
“What’s happening? What news? It sounds like you’re having a party.”
“Dan proposed. Literally out of the blue. We were taking it in turns to say what we’re thankful for and when it was his turn he gave me a funny look and then he got down on one knee and—Mum, we’re getting married.”
Maggie sat down hard on the edge of the bed, the freezing air forgotten. “Married? But you and Dan have only been together for a few weeks—”
“Eleven weeks, four days, six hours and fifteen minutes—oh wait, now it’s sixteen, I mean seventeen—” She was laughing, and Maggie tried to laugh with her.
How should she handle this? “That’s not very long, sweetheart.” But completely in character for Rosie, who bounced from one impulse to another, powered by enthusiasm.
“It feels so right, I can’t even tell you. And you’ll understand because it was like that for you and Dad.”
Maggie stared at the damp patch on the wall.
Tell her the truth.
Her mouth moved but she couldn’t push the words out. This was the wrong time. She should have done it months ago, but she’d been too much of a coward.
And now it was too late. She didn’t want to be the slayer of happy moments.
She couldn’t even say you’re too young, because she’d been the same age when she’d had Katie. Which basically made her a hypocrite. Or did it make her someone with experience?
“You just started your postgrad—”
“I’m not giving it up. I can be married and study. Plenty do it.”
Maggie couldn’t argue with that. “I’m happy for you.” Did she sound happy? She tried harder. “Woohoo!”
She’d thought she’d white-knuckled her way through all the toughest parts of parenting, but it turned out there were still some surprises waiting for her. Rosie wasn’t a child anymore. She had to be allowed to make her own decisions. And her own mistakes.
Rosie was talking again. “I know it’s all a bit fast, but you’re going to love Dan as much as I do. You said you thought he was great when you spoke to him.”
But speaking to someone on a video call wasn’t the same as meeting them in person, was it?
Maggie swallowed down all the words of warning that rose up inside her. She was not going to turn into her own mother and send clouds to darken every bright moment. “He seemed charming, and I’m thrilled for you. If I don’t sound it, it’s because it’s the middle of the night here, and you know what I’m like when I’ve just woken up. When I saw your name pop up on the screen, I was worried it was your asthma.”
“Haven’t had an attack in ages. I’m sorry I woke you, but I wanted to share my news.”
“I’m glad you woke me. Tell me everything.” She closed her eyes and tried to pretend her daughter was in the room with her, and not thousands of miles away.
There was no reason to panic. It was an engagement, that was all. There was plenty of time for them to decide if this was the right thing for them. “We’ll have a big celebration when you and your sister are here for Christmas. Would Dan like to join us? I can’t wait to meet him. Maybe we’ll throw a party. Invite the Baxters, and all your friends from college and school.” Planning lifted Maggie’s mood. Christmas was her favorite time of year, the one occasion the whole family gathered together. Even Katie, with her busy life as a doctor, usually managed to beg and barter a few days at Christmas in exchange for covering the busy New Year shift. Maggie was looking forward to spending time with her. She had a niggling suspicion her eldest daughter was avoiding her. Every time Maggie suggested meeting up, Katie made an excuse, which was unlike her because she rarely refused a free lunch.
Christmas would give her a chance to dig a little deeper.
In her opinion, Oxford was the perfect place to spend the festive season. True, there was unlikely to be snow, but what was better than a postlunch walk listening to the peal of bells on a crisp, cold winter’s day?
It promised to be perfect, apart from one complication.
Maggie still hadn’t figured out how she was going to handle that side of things.
Maybe an engagement was exactly what they needed to shift the focus of attention.
“Christmas is one of the things I need to talk to you about.” Rosie sounded hesitant. “I planned to come home, but since Dan proposed—well, we don’t see the point in waiting. We’ve chosen the day. We’re getting married on Christmas Eve.”
Maggie frowned. “You mean next year?”
“No, this year.”
She counted the days and her brain almost exploded. “You want to get married in less than four weeks? To a man you barely know?” Rosie had always been impulsive, but this wasn’t a soft toy that would be abandoned after a few days, or a dress that would turn out to be not quite the right color. Marriage wasn’t something that could be rectified with a refund. There was no reason for haste, unless—“Sweetie—”
“I know what you’re thinking, and it isn’t that. I’m not pregnant! We’re getting married because we’re in love. I adore him. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.”
You barely know him.
Maggie shifted, uncomfortably aware that knowing someone well didn’t inoculate you against problems.
“I’m excited for you!” Turned out she could fake excitement as convincingly as she could fake calm. “But I could never arrange anything that quickly. Even a small wedding takes months of planning. When Jennifer Hill was married in the summer her mother told me they had to book the photographer more than a year in advance. And would everyone stay? It’s Christmas. Everywhere will already be booked, and even if we managed to find something it would cost a fortune at this time of year.”
How many could she accommodate in Honeysuckle Cottage? And what would Dan’s family think of Rosie’s home, with its slightly crooked walls and its antiquated heating system? Could English country charm compensate for frozen toes? In the summer the place was picture-perfect, with its walled garden and profusion of climbing roses, but living here in winter felt more like an exercise in survival. Still, Aspen was in the Rocky Mountains, and that had to be a pretty cold place in winter, too, surely?
Maybe she and Dan’s mother would bond over the challenges of heating a property in cold weather.
“You wouldn’t have to arrange anything,” Rosie said. “We’re getting married here, in Aspen. I feel terrible about not having our usual family gathering in the cottage but spending the holidays here will be magical. Remember all those years Katie and I used to stare out of the window hoping for snow? There’s more snow here than you could ever imagine. Christmas in Colorado is going to be heaven. The scenery is incredible, and it will be a White Christmas in every way possible.”
Christmas in Colorado.
Maggie stared at the dusky pink curtains that pooled on the dark oak floor. She’d made them during the long nights she’d spent watching over Rosie.
“You’re not coming home for Christmas?” Why had she said that? She was not going to turn into one of those mothers who buried their children in guilt. “You must get married where and when you want, but I don’t suppose Aspen will be any different from here in terms of arrangements. To arrange a wedding in under a month would take a miracle.”
“We have a miracle. Catherine, Dan’s mother, is a wedding planner. She’s amazing. This only happened an hour ago and she’s already made some calls and arranged the flowers and the cake. Usually she handles celebrities, so she has tons of contacts.”
“Oh, well—super.” Maggie felt as if she’d fallen in a river and was being swept along, helpless and flailing. “She doesn’t mind helping you?”
“She’s excited. And she has flawless taste. Everything will be perfect.”
Maggie thought of her own imperfect life and felt a rush of something she recognized as jealousy. How could she be jealous of someone she’d never met?
Maybe she was having a midlife crisis, but surely if that was the case then it should have happened years ago when Rosie had first left home? Why now? She was having delayed empty nest syndrome.
She blinked to clear her misty vision and wondered why she’d ever thought it would be easy to be a parent.
Focusing on the practical, she made a mental list of all the things she’d have to do to cancel Christmas. The cake would keep, as would the cranberry sauce, waiting in the freezer. She’d ordered a turkey from a local farmer, but maybe she could still cancel that.
The one thing not so easily canceled were her expectations.
The White family always gathered together at Christmas. They had their traditions, which probably would have seemed crazy to some, but Maggie cherished them. Decorating the tree, singing carols, doing a massive jigsaw, playing silly games. Being together. It didn’t happen often now that her daughters were grown, and she’d been looking forward to it.
“Have you told your sister yet?”
“She is my next call. Not that she’s likely to answer her phone. She’s always working. I want her to be my maid of honor.”
What would Katie’s reaction be? “Your sister doesn’t consider herself a romantic.”
Maggie sometimes wondered if working in the emergency department for so long had distorted her elder daughter’s view of humanity.
“I know,” Rosie said, “but this isn’t any old wedding. It’s my wedding, and I know she’ll do it for me.”
“You’re right, she will.” Katie had always been a protective and loving older sister.
Maggie glanced at the photograph she kept on the table next to her bed. The two girls standing side by side, arms wrapped around each other, their cheeks pressed together as they faced the camera, smiles merging. It was one of her favorite photos.
“I know you hate flying, Mum, but you will come, won’t you? I badly want you all to be there.”
Flying. Rosie was right that she hated it.
In company when conversation turned to travel, she pretended she was protecting the planet by avoiding flying, but in reality she was protecting herself. The idea of being propelled through the air in a tin can horrified her. It all seemed out of her control. What if the pilot had drunk too much the night before? What if they collided with another plane? Everyone knew that airspace was ridiculously overcrowded. What about drones? Bird strikes?
When the children were young she and Nick had bundled them into the car and taken them to the beach. Once, they’d taken the ferry across to France and driven as far as Italy (never again, Nick had said, as they’d been bombarded with a chorus of are we nearly there all the way from Paris to Pisa).
And now she was expected to fly to the Rocky Mountains for Christmas.
And she would. Of course she would.
“We’ll be there. Nothing would keep us away.” Maggie waved goodbye to her dreams of a family Christmas at the cottage. “But what about a venue? Will you be able to find something at such short notice?”
“We’re going to have the wedding right here, at his home. Dan’s family own Snowfall Lodge. It’s this amazing boutique hotel just outside Aspen. I can’t wait for you to see it. There are views of the forest and the mountains, and outdoor hot tubs—it’s going to be the perfect place to spend Christmas. The perfect place to get married. I’m so excited!”
Honeysuckle Cottage was the perfect place to spend Christmas.
Maggie couldn’t imagine spending it in a place she didn’t know, with people she didn’t know. Not only that, but perfect people she didn’t know. Even the prospect of snow didn’t make her feel better.
“It sounds as if you have it all covered. All we need to do is think about what to wear.”
“Mm, I was going to mention that. It’s pretty cold at this time of year. You’re going to need to wear some serious layers.”
“I was talking about your clothes. Your wedding dress.”
“Catherine is taking me to her favorite boutique bridal store tomorrow. She’s booked an appointment and they’re closing the store for us and everything.”
On the few occasions Maggie had thought about Rosie getting married, she’d imagined planning it together, poring over photographs in magazines, trying on dresses.
Never once had she pictured the whole thing happening without her.
Now she thought about it, very little of her life had turned out the way she’d planned.
She stared at the empty expanse of bed next to her.
“That’s—kind of her.”
“She is kind. She says I’m the daughter she never had. She’s really spoiling me.”
But Rosie was her daughter, Maggie thought. She should be the one doing the spoiling.
No matter how hard she tried, it was impossible not to be hurt and a little resentful.
Already she felt more like a guest than the mother of the bride.
No! She wasn’t going to turn into that sort of mother. This was Rosie’s special day, not hers. Her feelings didn’t matter.
“What can I do to help?”
“Nothing. Get yourselves here. Catherine can’t wait to meet you. I know you’ll love her.”
Maggie wondered what Rosie had said about her. My mother works in academic publishing. She loves baking and gardening. To a high-flying celebrity wedding planner, she probably sounded as exciting as yesterday’s laundry.
“I’m looking forward to meeting her.”
“Can I speak to Dad? I want to hear his voice.”
Maggie gripped the phone. She hadn’t anticipated this. “I—um—he’s not here right now.”
“It’s the middle of the night. How can he not be there?”
Maggie searched frantically for a plausible explanation. She could hear Nick’s voice, for goodness’ sake, Mags, this is absurd. It’s time to tell the truth.
But the truth was the last thing Rosie needed to hear on the day of her engagement.
She would not spoil her daughter’s big moment.
“He’s gone for a walk.”
“A walk? At three in the morning? Have you guys finally bought a dog or something?”
“No. Your dad was working on a paper until late and couldn’t sleep. But he should be back any minute.” She was slightly shocked by her own creativity under pressure. She’d always raised the girls to tell the truth, and here she was lying like a pro.
“Get him to call me the moment he walks through the door.”
“Won’t you be asleep by then?”
There was a sound of glasses clinking together and Rosie giggled. “It’s only eight o’clock in the evening here. Will you get him to call me back?”
Unable to think of an excuse, Maggie promised that Nick would call as soon as he came in, and after a few more excited words she ended the call.
She sat for a moment, then walked to the window. It was dark outside, but the moon sent a ghostly glow across the village green.
In the summer it was the venue for cricket, and in the winter the trees were decked with tiny fairy lights paid for by the village council. There had been an outcry at proposals to divert traffic through the center of the village.
Maggie guessed they didn’t have those problems in Aspen. Nobody was likely to have to fight the demise of the local bus service, or the plan to only open the library two days a week.
Unable to see an alternative, she picked up the phone and dialed Nick’s number.
It rang and rang, but Maggie persevered. Nick’s ability to sleep through anything was something that she’d both resented and envied when the children were young. It had been Maggie who had dragged herself from the bed every half an hour when Rosie was tiny, and Maggie who had borne the brunt of the asthma attacks even when Nick was home between trips.
Eventually he picked up the phone with a grunt. “’Lo.”
“Maggie?” His voice was rough with sleep and she could imagine him shaking himself awake like a bear waking from hibernation.
“You need to call Rosie.”
“Now? In the middle of the night? What’s wrong?” To give him his due, he was instantly concerned. “Is she in the hospital?”
“No. She has news.” Should she tell him or leave Rosie to tell him herself? In the end she decided to tell him. Nick tended to be blunt in his responses and she didn’t want him spoiling Rosie’s moment. “She and Dan are getting married.” She heard the tinkling of glass and Nick cursing fluently. “Are you all right?”
“Knocked a glass of water over.”
Nick was a professor of Egyptology, ridiculously intelligent and endearingly clumsy with everyday items. At least, Maggie had found it endearing in the beginning. It had become less endearing as the years had passed and he’d broken half her favorite china. She used to joke that he was so used to dealing with pottery fragments he didn’t know how to handle an entire piece.
“She and Dan are getting married in Colorado at Christmas.”
“This Christmas? The one happening next month?”
“That’s the one. Dan’s family own a luxury resort. I’ve forgotten what it’s called.”
“How do you know that?”
“Rosie mentioned it when she told me about her plans for Thanksgiving. Goodness. Married. I didn’t see that one coming. Our little Rosie. Always doing the unexpected.” There was a pause and she heard rustling in the background and the click of a light switch. “How do you feel?”
Sad. Lost. Confused. Anxious.
She wasn’t sure how many of those feelings could be attributed to Rosie’s news.
“I feel fine.” That was as much of a lie as letting Rosie think Nick was in bed with her. “It’s Rosie’s life, and she should do what she wants to do.”
“What about Christmas? I know how important it is to you.”
“We’ll still be having Christmas, just not at Honeysuckle Cottage. The wedding is planned for Christmas Eve.” She didn’t quite manage to keep the wobble from her voice.
“Are you going to go?”
“What sort of a question is that? You seriously think I wouldn’t attend my daughter’s wedding?”
“I hadn’t given it any thought at all until two minutes ago when you first mentioned it. I know how you love Christmas at the cottage, and how much you hate flying. I know pretty much everything about you.”
She thought about the file she’d left open on the kitchen table.
He didn’t know everything.
“If my daughter is getting married in Aspen, then that’s where I’ll be, too.”
“How? I’ve never managed to get you on a plane. Not even for our honeymoon.”
“I’ll find a way.” She could do a fear of flying course, but that felt like a ridiculous waste of money. Alcohol would be cheaper. She didn’t often drink, so a couple of gin and tonics should do it. “We can sort out details later. She wants you to call her back so that she can tell you in person.”
There was a pause. “Where does she think I am? What did you tell her?”
“That you were out walking because you couldn’t sleep.”
His sigh echoed down the phone like an accusation. “This has gone on long enough. We should tell them, Mags.” He sounded tired. “They’re not children anymore. They deserve to know the truth.”
“We’ll tell them when the time is right, and that time isn’t when your youngest daughter calls all excited to tell you she’s getting married.”
“All right, but we tell her before we arrive in Colorado. We’ll call her together next week. We’ve been living apart for months now. It’s time to tell both girls that it’s over.”
Maggie felt her throat thicken and her chest hurt.
It was because it was the middle of the night. Things always seemed worse at three in the morning.
“I’d rather tell Katie in person, but she’s elusive at the moment. Have you heard from her lately?”
“No, but that isn’t unusual. You two have this mother-daughter thing going on. You’re the one she always calls.”
But Katie hadn’t called. She hadn’t called in a while.
Did that mean she was busy, or that something was wrong?
“I’ll try calling her again. She usually does nothing but sleep and eat over Christmas. Traveling to Aspen might be difficult for her.”
Difficult for all of them.
A sister who didn’t believe in marriage, and parents who were divorcing.
What sort of a wedding was this going to be?
“That’s it, Sally. All done.” Katie removed her surgical gloves and stood up. The stitches were neat and she was satisfied she’d done the best possible job. There would be a scar, but Katie knew that with or without a scar Sally would never forget tonight. “Is there someone we can call for you?”
The woman shook her head. There was bruising and swelling on her left cheek and disillusionment in her eyes. “I never thought this would happen to me.”
Katie sat down again. Her shoulder ached from sitting in one position for too long and she rolled it discreetly to try to ease the discomfort. “It can happen to anyone. It’s not about you. It’s about him. It’s not your fault.” It was important to say the words, even though she knew she probably wouldn’t be believed.
“I feel stupid. I keep thinking I must have missed something. We’ve been together for two years. Married for four months. He’s never done anything like this before. I love him. I thought he loved me. We met when I started a new job and he swept me off my feet. He seemed perfect.”
Katie shivered. “Perfect” wasn’t normal. What human being was perfect? “I’m sorry.”
“There were no signs. No clues.”
“Perfect” might have been a sign. Or maybe she was jaded.
Over the years she’d worked in the emergency department, she’d seen it all. Children who were abused. Women who were abused and, yes, men who were abused. She’d seen people who knifed each other, people who drove too fast and paid the price, people who drank and then climbed behind the wheel and took a life. There were plenty of regular accidents, too, of course, along with heart attacks, brain hemorrhages and any number of acute emergencies that required immediate attention. And then there were the hordes who decided the emergency department was the easiest place to access medical care of the most trivial kind. Each day she waded through a mixed soup of humanity, some good, some not so good.
“When we met, he was sweet and kind. Loving. Attentive.” Sally wiped her cheek with the heel of her hand. “I’m trying not to cry, because crying hurts. The physical injuries are awful, but the worst thing is that it shakes your confidence in your own judgment. You must have seen it before. I can’t believe I’m the first.”
Katie handed her a tissue. “You’re not the first.”
“How do you handle it? Working here, you must see the worst of human behavior.”
Katie’s shoulder chose that moment to give an agonizing twinge. Yes, she saw the worst of human behavior. She had to remind herself that she also saw the best. She wondered what would happen to this woman. To this marriage. Would she forgive him? Would the cycle continue? “What will you do? Do you have a plan?”
“No. Until he threw me down the stairs I didn’t realize I needed one.” Sally blew her nose. “The house is mine, but I don’t feel safe in it right now so I’ll probably stay with my parents for a while. He wants to talk to me, and I suppose I should at least listen.”
Katie wanted to tell her not to go back, but it wasn’t her place to give advice. Her job was to fix the physical damage. Helping Sally deal with the emotional carnage and find some degree of empowerment was someone else’s responsibility. “The police want to talk to you. Are you feeling up to it?”
“Not really, but it’s important so I’ll do it. This was going to be our first Christmas together.” Sally tucked the tissue into her sleeve. “I had it all planned.”
The time of year seemed to amplify her distress, but Katie knew from experience that tragedy didn’t take a break for Christmas.
Someone opened the door. “Dr. White! We need you.”
Saturday nights in the emergency department were not for the fainthearted, although these days it wasn’t only Saturdays. Every night was insane.
“I’ll be right there.” She glanced at the nurse who had assisted. “Can you make sure Sally has all the information she needs?” She turned back to her patient. “When you’re ready, there are people you can speak to. People who can help.”
“But no one who can turn the clock back. No one who can turn him into the man I thought he was.”
Katie wondered if Sally’s worst injury was the damage to her belief system. How did you ever trust a man again? “I hope everything works out for you.”
Katie was unlikely to find out, of course. The place was like a conveyor belt of trauma. She dealt with what came through the doors, and then she moved on. There was no long-term management here.
“You’ve been very kind. Your parents must be proud.”
Katie ground her teeth. The reality was that compassion had to be squashed into the shortest time possible. They were two doctors down and she had a queue of patients waiting for her attention, so she smiled at Sally again and left the room.
Would her parents be proud if they’d witnessed her life over the last few weeks? She didn’t think so.
She was probably letting them down. She knew she was letting herself down.
She looked at the nurse who was hovering in the corridor. “Problem?”
“The guy coughing up blood—”
“Yes. Harris. How do you do that? How do you know everyone’s name even though you only spoke to him for less than a minute?”
“I like to make an inhuman experience as human as possible. What about him?”
“His tests are back. Dr. Mitford saw him and says he needs to be admitted, but there is a bed crisis.”
When wasn’t there a bed crisis? You stood more chance of finding a unicorn in your Christmas stocking than you did a hospital bed. Demand exceeded supply. A patient she’d seen at the beginning of her shift was still waiting for a bed six hours later. Because there was always a risk of hospital-acquired infection, Katie sent people home whenever she was able to do so. “Did you manage to contact his daughter? Is she on her way?”
“Yes, and yes.”
“Call me when she arrives. I’ll talk to her. He might be better off at home if there is someone there to take care of him.” And better for his dignity. She’d seen on the notes that he was a retired CEO. Once, he’d probably commanded a room. Now he was the victim of human frailty. No matter how busy she was, she tried to remember that landing in the emergency department was one of the most stressful moments of a person’s life. What was routine to her was often terrifying for the patient.
She never forgot what it had been like for her mother being in the hospital with Rosie.
Katie saw three more patients in quick succession and was then hit by a wave of dizziness.
It had happened a few times over the past few weeks and she was starting to panic. She needed to bring her A game to work, and lately that wasn’t happening.
“I’m going to grab a quick coffee before I keel over.” She turned and bumped straight into her colleague.
“Hey, Katie.” Mike Bannister had been in her year at med school and they’d remained friends.
“How was the honeymoon?”
“Let’s put it this way, two weeks in the Caribbean wasn’t enough. What are you doing at work? After what happened I thought—are you sure you should be here?”
“Did you take any time off?”
“I don’t need time off.” She forced herself to breathe slowly, hoping Mike would move on.
He glanced over his shoulder to check no one was listening. “You’re stressed out and on the edge. I’m worried about you.”
“You’re imagining things.” She was totally stressed out. “I probably have low blood sugar. I’m cranky when I’m hungry and I haven’t had a break since I walked into this place seven hours ago. I’m about to fix that.”
“You’re allowed to be human, Katie.” Mike’s gaze settled on her face. “What happened was nasty. Scary. No one would blame you if—”
“Worry about the patients, not me. There are more than enough of them.” Katie tried to ignore the pain in her shoulder and the rapid beating of her heart. She didn’t want to think about it and she certainly didn’t want to talk about it.
She’d once overheard her mother saying to someone, Katie is solid as a rock.
Up until a month ago she wouldn’t have disagreed.
Now she felt anything but solid. She was falling apart, and it was becoming harder and harder to hide it from her colleagues. Even the thought of going to work brought her to the edge of a panic attack, and she’d never suffered from panic attacks.
Her mother kept calling suggesting lunch and she kept stalling because she was afraid she might break down.
“Sorry.” A nurse bumped into her as he sprinted from one end of the department to another and the wail of an ambulance siren told her the workload wasn’t going to ease any time soon.
“The paramedics are bringing in a nasty head injury. And that film crew are driving me insane,” Mike said.
Katie had forgotten the film crew. They were filming a “fly on the wall” documentary. She suspected they were beginning to wish they’d chosen a different wall.
The cameraman had passed out on day one after witnessing the aftermath of a particularly nasty road accident. He’d hit his head on a trolley and she’d had to put eight stitches in his head. His colleagues had thought it hilarious that he’d ended up on the other side of the camera, but she could have done without the extra business.
“It’s like a war zone,” one of the journalists had observed earlier in the evening and given that he’d worked in an actual war zone at one point, no one was about to argue with him. “No wonder you’re short-staffed. Aren’t you ever tempted to ditch the whole thing and retrain in dermatology?”
Katie hadn’t answered. She was tempted by a whole lot of things, and it was starting to unsettle her.
Medicine was her life. She’d decided to be a doctor the night Rosie had her first asthma attack. Their father had been away. Katie had been too young to be left alone, so she’d gone to the hospital, too.
She’d been fascinated by the beeping machines, the soft hiss of the oxygen and the skilled hands of the doctor whose ministrations had helped her little sister breathe again.
At eighteen she’d gone to medical school. More than a decade later, she was still working her way up the ladder as a doctor. She liked her colleagues, she loved the feeling that she was doing good, but lately that feeling didn’t come as often as it once had. She wanted to do more for her patients, but time and resources were in short supply. She was becoming increasingly frustrated by the limitations of the job, and starting to question whether it was right for her.
The time to ask herself that question would have been twelve years ago, not now.
She turned away from Mike.
A junior doctor was hovering, waiting to discuss a case with her but before she could open her mouth the drunken head injury arrived. The man was covered in blood and bellowing like a wounded animal.
It was another hour before she was finally able to visit the break room, and she grabbed a protein bar and a cup of coffee while she checked her phone.
She had three missed calls from her sister. In the middle of the night?
She gulped down the last of the bar and dialed, calming herself with the knowledge that her sister was perfectly capable of calling in the middle of the night to say she’d taken up ballet or decided to run a marathon.
Please let that be all it is.
If something had happened to her sister, that would be the end of her.
“Rosie?” She tossed the wrapper in the bin. “Are you in hospital?”
“For crying out loud, can’t a girl call her family without everyone assuming I’m in hospital? What is wrong with you people?”
Relief flooded through her. “If you’re going to call your family at four in the morning then you can expect that kind of reaction.” Katie decided to give her feet five minutes’ rest and kicked off her shoes. “So is this a catch-up call?” She eyed the chair but decided that if she sat down in it she might never get up again.
“Not exactly. I called because I have big news, and something special to ask you.”
“Big news?” Why, when her sister said those words, did they sound so terrifying? “You’re throwing in your studies and you’re going to travel in Peru?”
Rosie laughed, because there had been a time when she’d considered exactly that. “Guess again.”
With Rosie it could be anything.
“You’ve taken up Irish dancing and you’re moving in with a colony of leprechauns.”
“Wrong again. I’m getting married!”
Katie spilled her coffee, and it splashed across her skirt and her legs. “Shit.”
“I know you’re not the world’s biggest romantic, but I can’t believe you actually said that.”
“It was a reaction to the severe burn I just gave myself, not a reaction to your news.” She never used to swear, but years working in the emergency department had changed that. “You were saying?” She grabbed paper towels and mopped the mess. “Married? Who to?”
“What do you mean ‘who to’? To Dan, of course.”
“Do I know about Dan?” Katie lost track of her sister’s relationships. “Oh wait, I do remember you mentioning him. He’s your latest.”
“Not only my latest, but my last. He’s The One.”
Katie rolled her eyes, relieved it wasn’t a video call. “You thought Callum Parish was ‘The One,’ too.”
“He was my first. You always love your first.”
Katie hadn’t loved her first. Katie had never been in love. She was pretty sure that part of her was faulty.
“What’s his problem?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You always pick men who are going through a hard time. You like to save people.”
“That is not true. And Dan doesn’t have a problem, except perhaps that his future sister-in-law is insane.”
Future sister-in-law? Katie struggled to get her head around it. “If he doesn’t have a problem, why are you marrying him?”
“Because I’m in love!”
Love. A disease with an uncertain prognosis that often struck without warning.
“I’m checking you’re not being pressured into something, that’s all. It’s important that you’re doing it for the right reasons.” Katie couldn’t think of a single reason that made sense, but she was willing to accept her own limitations in that area. Rosie was right. She wasn’t romantic. She didn’t watch romantic movies. She didn’t read romance. She didn’t dream of weddings. She lived a life drenched in reality. She saw plenty of endings, few of them happy.
“Can’t you be pleased for me?”
“I’m your big sister. My job is to protect you.”
“From anything and everything that might harm you. In this case, from yourself. You’re impulsive and very free with your affections. You’re gentle, and frankly adorable, and you’re a target for every lame duck.”
“Dan is not a lame duck.”
“Maybe not, but then you don’t see bad in anyone. And—how can I say this without offending you? You’re not a great judge of men.”
“You’ve offended me. And, by the way, ‘adorable’ makes me sound like a puppy that fell in a puddle. It’s not a compliment for someone on track for an academic career. You never take me seriously. Maybe I’m not a high-flying doctor like you, but I’m at Harvard doing a PhD. Some people are impressed by that.”
“I do take you seriously.” Didn’t she? “And it’s possible to be cute and academic. I know some people are impressed, which is why it’s my job to keep you grounded so that the whole Ivy League thing doesn’t go to your head. And to that end we do need to remember here that you’re studying fairy tales, which basically sums up your entire view of life.” It was a long running family joke, but Katie felt a twinge of guilt as she said it. Maybe she’d made that joke a little too often.
“I’m studying Celtic languages, folklore and myth. Not fairy tales.”
“I know, and I’m proud of you.” Katie softened her tone. She was proud of her sister. “I also love you and want to protect you.”
“I don’t need protecting. I love him, Katie. Dan is—he’s—incredible. He’s funny, he’s kind, he’s so laid-back it’s unbelievable frankly and he kisses like a god. I never thought I could feel this way.”
“You can’t marry a guy because he’s good in bed.” It had been so long since she’d been to bed with anyone, good or otherwise, that she probably wasn’t the best judge of that either.
“That’s all you heard from what I said? It’s so much more than that. He’s perfect for me.”
After dealing with Sally, the alarm bells in Katie’s head were deafening. “No one is perfect. If he seems perfect, it’s either because he’s working hard to hide something, or that you haven’t been with him long enough to see his flaws. Remember Sam.”
“I just told you I’m getting married, and you have to mention Sam? Do you really think it’s good timing?”
“You adored Sam. And, by the way, you thought he was The One, right up until the point you discovered he’d slept with two of your friends.”
“People sometimes behave badly. It’s a fact of life.”
“You’re excusing him?”
“No, but we were at college. People go a little crazy at college.”
“He hurt you, Rosie. You cried so hard it triggered the worst asthma attack you’d ever had. I will never forget that crazy drive to Oxford. And lying to Mum, because you begged me not to tell her.” Her mother knew less than fifty percent of the things that had happened to Rosie since she’d left home. Sometimes Katie felt the burden of that. She saw the unfiltered version of Rosie’s life.
“I didn’t want to worry her. I’ve done more than enough of that in my lifetime.”
“And then there was—what was his name? James. He insisted you paid whenever you were together.”
“He didn’t have much money.”
“He was a leech.” She’d had to lend Rosie money, but she didn’t mention that. It wasn’t about money. It was about judgment.
“Dan is different.” Rosie was stubborn. “You’ll see it the moment you meet him.”
“Great. When can I meet him?” The sooner the better as far as she was concerned. Engagements could be broken, couldn’t they? Relationships ended all the time, particularly Rosie’s.
“That’s why I’m phoning. We’re getting married at Christmas, right here in Aspen. Can you think of anything more romantic? Blue skies and snow.”
“This Christmas? The Christmas that is happening in less than a month? Are you kidding me?”
“Why is everyone so surprised?”
“Because generally you’re given more than a few weeks notice for a wedding and you’ve only known him for a couple of months.” An image of Sally’s bruised, tear-drenched face slid into her brain. There were no signs. No clues. “Does Mum know?”
“I called her first. She was thrilled. So was Dad.”
Katie was fairly sure her mother would have had an anxiety attack. “What’s the hurry? Why not wait awhile?”
“Because we don’t want to wait! We want to do this as soon as possible. And I really want you to be there. But don’t bring the doom and gloom.”
“Sorry.” Katie swallowed. The last thing she wanted was to hurt her sister. “It’s been a tough few weeks at work, that’s all. Ignore me. Of course I’ll be at your wedding. You’re not only my sister, you’re my best friend. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. I know you’re looking out for me.” Rosie’s voice was soft and warm and her generous response made Katie feel worse.
Her sister’s capacity to forgive human frailty was both her strength and her weakness. It made her vulnerable to every loser and user that crossed her path.
Was Dan one of those?
“What’s the plan? Do I have to book somewhere to stay?” The thought of making travel plans drained the last of her energy. “What about Mum and Dad?”
“They’re coming, too, of course. And everything is arranged apart from your flight. Dan’s family own this amazing place in the mountains. It will be the best vacation you’ve ever had.”
Katie had been dreading Christmas. She’d been wondering how she was going to hold it together during all that family time. Usually she loved it. She loved sleeping late and eating her mother’s amazing food. She loved catching up with her dad and hearing about his work. But everything was different now. Her life had changed forever on a dark, rainy night a few weeks before.
And now she felt exhausted. Could she honestly fly to Aspen and put on a happy face?
“When would you want us to fly out?”
“The wedding will be on Christmas Eve, so we thought you should all come a week before so you have time to get to know Dan and his family. Then you can stay over Christmas and fly back before the New Year, or whenever you like. Oh, Katie, I’m so excited! I can’t decide between a horse-drawn sleigh and a husky ride for the guests.”
“Well, don’t ache your brain on my account. I’m perfectly happy walking.”
“They have feet of snow here already. It’s a winter wonderland. You might not find it so easy to walk.”
“Walking is one of the few things I excel at. I’ve had years of practice.”
“I want you to be my bridesmaid. Maid of honor. Call it whatever you like.”
Katie didn’t want to call it anything. Why couldn’t her sister see that this wedding was a massive mistake?
“Are you sure? I’ll probably leave a muddy footprint on your dress. I don’t know much about weddings.” She knew even less about the duties of a maid of honor, but presumably they didn’t include being a killjoy.
“All you have to do is smile and help me out. You’ll be able to resuscitate Mum if she has a panic attack on the plane. I feel bad that I’m ruining her family Christmas. You know how important it is to her to have everyone together. I miss you. We haven’t spoken in ages. I was even starting to wonder if you were avoiding me.”
“That’s ridiculous. Busy, that’s all.”
Tell her what happened to you. Tell her that you feel as if the world is crumbling round you.
Rosie, she knew, would be horrified. Knowing her kindhearted sister, she’d probably jump on the first plane and fly over.
Katie blinked. She was the one who looked out for Rosie, not the other way around.
She was Rosie’s rock and her support. And never had Rosie needed her support and counsel as much as now.
Right there and then she made a decision.
Forget Christmas. Forget relaxation. Forget figuring out her own issues.
Her first priority was to stop her little sister making a massive mistake that would end in misery.
“I wouldn’t miss the wedding for anything.” She needed to meet Dan in person and figure out a way to save her sister from herself. And if she managed it early on in the week, then they might still all be home in time to spend Christmas in Honeysuckle Cottage.
With luck, her mother would be too focused on Rosie to notice that anything was wrong with Katie. “I can’t wait to be Bridesmaid of Honor, or whatever the correct title is. Don’t dress me in purple polyester, that’s all I ask. I don’t want static shock. And don’t spend too much money.” Because this wedding isn’t happening. She turned as the door opened and Mike walked into the room. “I need to go. I’m at work.”
“I’m proud of you. Katie. I tell everyone my big sister is a doctor.”
Big sister is falling apart.
She was a fraud. “Go. Have fun, but not so much fun you forget your inhalers.”
“I know. I’m the inhaler police. Party. Live life. I’ll call you tomorrow.” She ended the call and slid her feet back into her shoes.
Mike raised an eyebrow. “Nothing like giving out advice you don’t take yourself. When did you last party and live life?”
“I’m partying in my mind. I’m at a virtual party right now.”
“Does that come with a virtual hangover? Who is getting married?”
“My sister. In less than four weeks.”
“This is the sister who is studying fairy tales?”
Katie winced. “I might have overdone that joke. She’s studying Celtic languages, myth and folklore at a certain Ivy League college. She would claim it contributes to the understanding of the culture and beliefs of society. It has been the subject of many lively arguments round the dinner table. She really is super smart, but I still think of her as my little sister and I overdo the teasing.” She rubbed her forehead with her fingers. “It feels like yesterday I was reading her board books.”
“Big age difference?”
“Ten years. I think my parents had given up on having another child, and then Rosie arrived.”
“And you were hit by a massive dose of sibling jealousy?”
“What?” Katie stared at him. “No. I adored her. Right from the first moment I saw her funny little hairless head.” She thought about Rosie, an adorable toddler, following her everywhere. Rosie in her favorite dinosaur pajamas. Rosie turning blue with an asthma attack. “I confess I might be a tad overprotective, which is why I’m flying to Colorado to meet this guy.”
“You haven’t met him?”
“No. And don’t look at me that way. I’m already freaked out. They’ve known each other a couple of months. What can you know about someone in a few months? What if he’s a gambler, or a narcissist? He could be a psychopath. Maybe a serial killer.”
He leaned against the door and folded his arms. “Dr. Doom. Always the optimist.”
“I am not Dr. Doom. I am Dr. Reality, thanks to the years I’ve spent working here. Having the realities of life under your nose tends to cure optimism. There are no certainties in this life, we both know that.”
“All the more reason to grab the happy moments that come your way.”
“Did you honestly say that? If you get thrown out of medicine, you could write greeting cards.” She finished her coffee and walked to the door.
“What?” She turned and saw the concerned look on his face.
“Does your family know what happened to you?”
“No, and there’s no reason to tell them.”
“They could give you support.”
“I don’t need support. I’m my own support.” Her parents had done enough supporting in their lives. It was time for them to enjoy their time together.
“Maybe a couple of weeks enjoying outdoor living and breathing in mountain air will be good for you.”
“Maybe.” Blocking out his concerned look, she let the door swing closed behind her.
She didn’t care about outdoor living. She didn’t care about mountain air. She didn’t even care about a white Christmas.
She was flying to Colorado for one reason, and one reason only.
She was going to stop her sister’s wedding.