Chapter 1

Sebastian

 

“SEB? GOT a minute?” It was not the request, but rather the tone, that tipped him off to the severity of the issue. Bracing himself, Sebastian nodded for Trevor to continue. The young man swallowed. “We’ve gotten a ‘note’ from the client about the ice sculpture.”

Well, that was unexpected, as Seb had personally supervised the installation of the crystalline swan ice sculpture, and it was a prime example of the Ice Palace’s most classic work. He’d made a point of keeping the variables of this late-November event under tight control so he could wrap it up and head out for his vacation with an abundance of calm.

One raised eyebrow gave his assistant permission to elaborate. Trevor fussed with his collar before continuing, “They don’t think the swan is the appropriate, um, bird.”

The bad feeling grew. “And what bird would they prefer?”

“A turkey.”

Seb knew his face must have darkened into the shade his employees referred to as “get-out-of-the way plum.”

“I thought they indicated on the event intake form that we shouldn’t have a Thanksgiving theme since Thanksgiving was two days ago?”

“Yes. It said that. And I confirmed. But the CEO was shown a photo and he asked what a swan had to do with anything. And then he said it should be a turkey ‘for obvious reasons.’”

Four hours until the event started, and Seb had a five-foot ice sculpture to replace. It was par for the course. He winced because turkeys were ugly birds compared to swans. But what the client wanted, the client got.

“Call Ned at the Ice Palace and tell him we’ll pay double rate if they can deliver the turkey sculpture in two hours. Let me know. I’ll handle Lacey.”

Lacey Anderson was the president of Anderson Events, and Sebastian’s boss. He’d served as her VP and right-hand person for the past five years. She specialized in corporate events from an intimate dinner for three hundred to an elaborate three-day retreat for a thousand on a private island. Sebastian had made it snow in Palm Springs in May and transformed South Dakota into a tropical paradise in January.

As expected, Lacey bellowed like a bull when he called her, and then creatively used the word “turkey” in relation to the client for a solid fifteen minutes. Seb remained restrained—he could turn purple on occasion but he rarely vented. He knew his trademark single swan ice sculpture had a double meaning. But that icy edge was his best asset—work the problem and get it done.

When Lacey was done lambasting the idiocy of the C-suite, she paused to ask, “Your holiday plans still set?”

“Absolutely. I’m finally keeping my promise to see my family.”

It had been five years since Sebastian visited his family back home in Fir Falls, New York. At that time his sister Stephanie had still been married and his niece Chance was an infant. He’d meant to go home when Rowen was born, but he’d been new then, working with Lacey, and it was important he impress her. His family was counting on him. No matter how much he missed them, he had to do right and ensure they were secure. His mother’s throat-clogged admission five years ago on how behind she’d gotten on the mortgage was etched as indelibly in his heart as if she’d used a chisel.

One of the best ways to impress his new boss was to help their clients’ success. The year Rowen was born, a charitable foundation had scheduled a fundraiser for December 13th and the following December, a telecom giant had hired Anderson Events to take its top executives to a retreat in Cancún, so he hadn’t made it home for Christmas either of those years, and the corporate events had rolled into each other… and now Stephanie was divorced and Chance was five and he still hadn’t met three-year-old Rowen. Unless FaceTime counted, and Seb’s firm opinion was that it did not. His family deserved better.

Lacey let out something between a chuckle and a sigh. He could imagine her expression, long fingers tracing her temples and her nose scrunched.

“Guess you’ll be talking about it to them?” she asked, husky voice sounding even deeper than usual.

“Not much else to do in Fir Falls but talk.” He aimed for a light tone but his voice betrayed him. The conversation ahead would be anything but easy. Swallowing, he said, “See you in a month, Lacey. I’ll call…. Okay?”

“You’d better,” she ordered before adding, “Take care, Seb.”

 

 

THE DRIVE from New York City to Fir Falls took about four hours. Given that it was December 1st, holiday decorations had already sprouted everywhere, and driving past the festooned lampposts and storefronts on his way out of the city prompted an aggrieved sense of nostalgia. Growing up, the spelling of his last name—Chesnut—had given him a ridiculous amount of grief at this time of year. Too many “you’re kiddings” and “you spelled it wrongs.” Frankly, it had been exhausting. His mother had always taken it in stride and politely explained to every schoolteacher that indeed her son did know how to spell his surname—there was no T in it.

It only became more obnoxious as he got older, when his college peers thought it was a grand idea to burst into song about roasting chestnuts by open flames… for the entire month of December. Because that was so original.

Planning holiday events these past five years had also soured the festivities for him. Last year he’d arranged for acrobats to perform at an event during dinner. They’d swung overhead dressed as holiday ornaments, tinseled and sparkling, covered in hundreds of miniature Christmas balls and wired with flashing lights. The evening had concluded with a dessert of frozen hot chocolate mousse while a dusting of snow shimmered down from the rafters above. The snow was edible, a mix of cornstarch, flour, vegetable oil, and glitter sugar. It misted over the tables like fairy dust, although he’d personally been bothered by how it landed on the shoulders of his bespoke tuxedo and made it look like he had dandruff. Most of the guests had been enchanted, but there were always a couple who found an event not as exotic as they’d expected. Each holiday event had become a challenge to top the last presentation.

But if the holidays were mostly humbug to Sebastian and chestnuts could go roast themselves into the underworld, seeing his family again was something he was greatly anticipating.

The rental BMW purred beneath his hands as he pulled off the I-86 onto the narrow, curvy state highway that led to Fir Falls. Much as his own name led to confusion, so did his hometown’s, as it featured neither an abundance of fir trees nor a waterfall.

The town was named for the Fir family who had founded it in 1851 and started the glass factory that had employed most of its residents. When the factory shut down, the town could have fallen into backwater despair. But with a cache of vintage glassware from its prime years, a boom in antique and art stores, and some savvy marketing, Fir Falls had reinvented itself as a hipster attraction.

Seb’s nerves peaked as he turned down the street to his family home. He wasn’t completely sure what to expect…. Certainly, living in the twenty-first century made it easier to stay in touch; he talked to his mother every week and his sister Steph nearly as often, the girls fairly frequently too. Steph was determined that her daughters know their Uncle Seb, but being with everyone in person for a month….

His mother’s trusty Volvo looked lonely without his dad’s red Ford truck parked beside it in the driveway. He’d been attending NYU when his dad had died eight years ago of a heart attack. Dad’s sudden death had precipitated the spiral of events that ignited his commitment to provide financially for his mom and sister, even if that meant not taking a vacation to see them in years.

Shaking off his melancholy, he pulled out the front door key he’d never relinquished and snuck in to surprise them all. They’d been expecting him the next day, Friday. But he’d been anxious to see his family and left Thursday afternoon in the hope the surprise would be welcome. Four weeks with his family—his heart felt full. Silently he went straight for the living room.

The decorated-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Christmas tree dominated the space in front of the picture window, while the dancing flames of the fireplace cast a warm amber glow on the tableau of his capering nieces: Chance, twirling in a sequined tiara and tulle-trimmed pink gown, and little Rowen, in candy-cane-striped footed pajamas, upside down in an attempted somersault.

And between them, dancing with Princess Chance while keeping out of Rowen’s way, was Matthew Starr—the boy who had broken Seb’s heart—whom Seb had last seen at high school graduation ten years ago.

 

 

Matthew

 

AN HOUR ago, thirty-odd pounds of three-year-old exuberance had slammed against Matthew’s knee as he entered his favorite home in the entire world. “Airplane,” Rowen shouted.

“Row, let Uncle Matt take his coat off first,” their grandmother Cheryl had admonished. But Matt didn’t bother; he swooped Rowen aloft and swished her around the foyer like a kamikaze plane.

Rowen and her older sister, Chance, were the children of his best friend, Stephanie.

“Unc Matt, again, again,” demanded Rowen, pulling on his pant leg with her tight little grip. She was a petite child whose dark eyes and charcoal hair gave her a definite resemblance to pictures of her late grandfather. Matt remembered John Chesnut as a tall, reserved man with kind eyes. He knew how much Stephanie regretted that the girls had never known their grandfather and that Rowen had never met her Uncle Sebastian at all.

The family had accepted Sebastian’s absence for years, the busyness of his job preventing him from visiting. From Stephanie’s description of her brother’s career, Matt envisioned him as a glorified party planner.

It was hard for Matt to understand how someone could have a family like this and not want to be with them all the time. Matt had returned to Fir Falls four years ago after his parents had moved to Florida. As an only child, Matt was accustomed to being alone, but the friendship he had developed with Stephanie and then her family—well, it was the best part of Matt’s life.

As Matt finally slipped his coat onto the rack in the entranceway, Chance skipped in wearing a Princess Aurora gown, complete with tiny jeweled slippers and glittery pink crown. Matt melted on the spot. She was a vivacious girl with fair skin and hair the color of a daffodil in the sun. Her eyes were a gray-blue, like her grandmother’s. And her Uncle Sebastian’s.

“Look at you, Your Highness. Pretty as a cupcake.”

“I love cupcakes,” Rowen said with an earnest nod.

“I know you do.”

“But not pink,” she added with a frown. “Yuck.”

“Nobody likes pink cupcakes,” Chance declared with older sister authority. “Except for Valentine’s Day. Then they’re okay.” She changed topics with the lightning speed Matt had grown to expect from her. “Dance with me, Uncle Matt.” Chance held her arms up.

Smiling, he followed her into the living room where the Christmas tree blazed with riotous glory. Cheryl had lit a fire that gave the room an antique sheen. He found the Disney playlist on his phone and thumbed up the volume. Spinning Chance in a pirouette, he kept an eye on Rowen, who was wearing the Christmas pajamas he’d given her yesterday. He’d gifted both girls a matched set that made him think of elves and Christmas magic, and sleepwear didn’t count as a present, he’d told Steph when she protested that he was spoiling the girls.

Seeing that Rowen was about to topple over, Matt attempted to catch her while continuing his spin with Chance, overbalanced, and landed in a heap on the rug. He caught the sly grin that Chance gave her sister as they simultaneously pounced on him, Chance tackling his knees while Rowen belly-flopped across his chest. When Rowen froze midflop to stare up, Matt turned his head and nearly stopped breathing in surprise.

Sebastian Chesnut stood openmouthed, gazing at them as if he had no idea what to make of the scene. Matt supposed it did look baffling, seeing his once-upon-a-time high school fling sprawled on the living room carpet of Sebastian’s childhood home, shrieking nieces piled atop him. Oh, but did Sebastian look fine—his supple black leather jacket just reached his hips and the trim fit showed off the breadth of his shoulders. He had his father’s ebony hair and his mother’s lighter eyes—which right now were appraising the tangle of bodies with a hint of disapproval. Scrambling to his feet, Matt straightened his sweatshirt, which had ridden up, exposing his belly. The girls ducked behind him like shy bunnies, and he put a hand on each instinctively to reassure them.

Now that he was vertical, he realized that he and Sebastian were the same height; it was just his long legs that made Sebastian look taller. Or maybe it was the initial perspective of seeing him from the ground…. He’d surpassed Matt in muscles even back in high school, but mamma mia, Sebastian had grown into a stunning man. A moment later, Cheryl entered from the adjacent kitchen and after her own shocked moment embraced her son tightly. Still holding him, she said to Matt, “You remember Sebastian. You two were friends in high school?”

The memories of hurried secret make-out sessions heated Matt’s pale cheeks. With a grin that turned just a little crooked, he put his hand out.

“Baz.”