Camryn Neff came to Wishing Tree from Chicago two years ago to care for her ailing mother and help with her much younger twin sisters, Lily and Victoria. Her mother subsequently died right before Christmas and this year Camryn wants the holidays to be special for her 15-year old sisters. Jake Crane is now living in town permanently and is general manager of his family’s resort hotel, the flagship of their enterprise, but his mother, now widowed and a little bit lonely, wants grandchildren. Helen begins Project Jake’s Bride to help move things along and she’s got Camryn topping her list. Dylan Tucker, Jake’s best friend and surrogate brother, isn’t immune either. Helen is resurrecting the town’s annual Snow King and Queen and she’s rigged it so he’s going to be the King. River Best, a computer security expert with her own business, was selected as the Snow Queen and he was immediately taken with the lovely woman who would be his partner through the holiday season. She shares his attraction but her shyness may get in the way.
the heart of the story…
While Camryn and Jake form a breezy and fun friendship in their shared goal of thwarting his mother’s plans, they still can’t avoid how truly attracted they are to each other. It doesn’t take long for him to bond with her sisters, especially when they rescue a cute little Chihuahua found in the snow on his mother’s property who they decide to call Tinsel. Jake’s no longer interested in a casual relationship but that’s all Camryn is up for since she plans to return to Chicago once the twins graduate from high school. I found this aspect of the story hard to swallow as she’d formed quite a life in Wishing Tree and there wasn’t anything to really return to for her to have dug her heels so strongly into the notion. Otherwise, I enjoyed everything about their relationship. Dylan is much clearer about his intentions towards River and that was refreshing. However, he’s hiding quite the secret about his circumstances and, knowing that River had serious trust issues, he makes some boneheaded choices. Otherwise, their romance was lovely and the Snow King and Queen roles served them well in developing a deeper relationship.
There were so many fun moments in this story and Tanya Eby’s performance made them come to life. I loved how she voiced the banter between Camryn and Jake, his friendship with Dylan and their conversations with the meddling Helen. It was a wonderful listening experience.
the bottom line…
I love it when the relationships work without a lot of contrived conflicts and we were gifted with two in this story. Despite my annoyance with Camryn’s determination to keep a return to Chicago as goal and barrier to accepting a deeper commitment with Jake, the journeys of their developing relationships were mature and natural. Both couples were well suited and their life experiences brought added richness to their stories. Friends and family, along with little Tinsel, made for a magical holiday story.
- Release Date: October 4, 2022
- Series: Wishing Tree #2
- Narrator: Tanya Eby
- Audio Length: 9 hours, 59 minutes
- Publisher: Harlequin Audio
“Your teeth are lovely, Camryn. Did you wear braces as a child?”
Camryn Neff reminded herself that not only was the woman sitting across from her a very wealthy potential client, but also that her mother had raised her to be polite to her elders. Still, it took serious effort to keep from falling out of her chair at the weirdness of the question.
“No. This is how they grew.”
Hmm, that didn’t sound right, although to be honest, she didn’t have a lot of experience when a conversation turned dental.
She refocused her mind to the meeting at hand. Not that she knew for sure why Helen Crane, leader of Wishing Tree society, such as it was, and sole owner of the very impressive Crane hotel empire, wanted to meet with her. The summons had come in the form of a handwritten note, inviting her to the large, sprawling estate on Grey Wolf Lake. Today at two.
So here Camryn was, wearing a business suit that had been hanging in her closet for over a year. The dress code for Wishing Tree retail and the dress code for the job in finance she’d left back in Chicago were very different. While it had been fun to dust off her gorgeous boots and a silk blouse, and discover her skirts still fit, she was ready to get to the point of the invitation.
“How can I help you, Mrs. Crane?” she asked.
Camryn smiled. “Helen. I’m happy to host a wrapping party, either here or at the store. Or if you’d prefer, I can simply collect all your holiday gifts and wrap them for you.”
She casually glanced around at the high ceilings of the sitting room. There was a massive fireplace, intricate molding and a view of the lake that, even with two feet of snow on the ground, was spectacular. And while there were lovely fall floral displays on several surfaces, there wasn’t a hint of Christmas to be found. Not in Wishing Tree, eight days before Thanksgiving. Those decorations didn’t appear until the Friday after.
“I have some samples for custom wrapping paper,” she said, pulling out several sheets of paper from her leather briefcase. “The designs can be adjusted and the colors coordinated with what you have planned for this holiday season. Wrapped presents under a tree are such an elegant touch.”
“You’re very thorough,” Helen murmured. “Impressive.” She made a note on a pad. “Are you married, dear?”
“What?” Camryn clutched the wrapping paper samples. “No.”
Helen nodded. “Your mother passed away last year, didn’t she?”
A fist wrapped around Camryn’s heart. “Yes. In late October.”
“I remember her. She was a lovely woman. You and your sisters must have been devastated.”
That was one word for it, Camryn thought grimly, remembering how her life had been shattered by the loss. In the space of a few weeks, she’d gone from being a relatively carefree, engaged, happy junior executive in Chicago to the sole guardian for her twin sisters, all the while dealing with trying to keep Wrap Around the Clock, the family business, afloat. The first few months after her mother’s death were still a blur. She barely remembered anything about the holidays last year, save an unrelenting sadness.
“This year the season will be so much happier,” Helen said firmly. “Victoria and Lily are thriving at school. Of course they still miss their mother, but they’re happy, healthy young adults.” The older woman smiled. “I know the teen years can be trying but I confess I quite enjoyed them with Jake.”
Camryn frowned slightly. “How do you know about the twins?” she asked.
Helen’s smile never faded. “It’s Wishing Tree, my dear. Everyone knows more than everyone else thinks. Now, you’re probably wondering why I invited you over today.”
“To discuss wrapping paper?” Although even as Camryn voiced the question, she knew instinctively that was not the real reason.
Helen Crane was close to sixty, with perfect posture and short, dark hair. Her gaze was direct, her clothes stylish. She looked as if she’d never wanted for anything and was very used to getting her way.
“Of course you’ll take care of all my wrapping needs,” Helen said easily. “And I do like your idea of custom paper for faux presents under the tree. I’ll have my holiday decorator get in touch with you so you two can coordinate the design. But the real reason I asked you here is to talk about Jake.”
Camryn was having a little trouble keeping up. The order for wrapping and the custom paper was great news, but why would Helen want to discuss her son?
She knew who Jake was—everyone in town did. He was the handsome, successful heir to the Crane hotel fortune. He’d been the football captain in high school, had gone to Stanford. After learning the hotel business at the smaller Crane hotels, he was back in Wishing Tree, promoted to general manager of the largest, most luxurious of the properties.
They’d never run in the same circles back when they’d been kids, in part because she was a few years younger. She’d been a lowly freshman while he’d been a popular senior. Her only real connection with Jake was the fact that he’d once been engaged to her friend Reggie.
Helen sighed. “I’ve come to the conclusion that left to his own devices, Jake is never going to give me grandchildren. I lost my husband eighteen months ago, which has been very hard for me. It’s time for my son to get on with finding someone, getting married and having the grandchildren I deserve.”
Well, that put the whole “did you wear braces” conversational gambit in perspective, Camryn thought, not sure if she should laugh or just plain feel sorry for Jake. His mother was a powerful woman. Camryn sure wouldn’t want to cross her.
“I’m not sure what that has to do with me,” she admitted.
Helen tapped her pad of paper. “I’ve come up with a plan. I’m calling it Project: Jake’s Bride. I’m going to find my son a wife and you’re a potential candidate.”
Camryn heard all the words. Taken individually, she knew what Helen was saying. But when put together, in that exact way, the meaning completely escaped her.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You’re pretty, you’re smart. You’ve done well at Wrap Around the Clock. You’re nurturing—look how you’ve cared for your baby sisters.” Helen smiled again. “I confess I do like the idea of instant grandchildren, so that’s a plus for you. There are other candidates, of course, but you’re definitely near the top of the list. All I need is confirmation from your gynecologist that you’re likely to be fertile and then we can get on with the business of you and Jake falling in love.”
“You want to know if I’m fertile?”
Camryn shoved the samples back in her briefcase and stood. “Mrs. Crane, I don’t know what century you think we’re living in, but this isn’t a conversation I’m going to have with you. My fertility is none of your business. Nor is my love life. If your plan is genuine, you need to rethink it. And while you’re doing that, you might want to make an appointment with your own doctor, because there’s absolutely something wrong with you.”
Helen looked surprisingly unconcerned. “You’re right, Camryn. I apologize. Mentioning fertility was going a bit too far. You’re the first candidate I’ve spoken to, so I’m still finding my way through all this.” She wrote on her pad. “I won’t bring that up again. But as to the rest of it, seriously, what are your thoughts?”
Camryn sank back on her chair. “Don’t do it. Meddling is one thing, but you’re talking about an actual campaign to find your son a bride. No. Just no. It’s likely to annoy him, and any woman who would participate in something like this isn’t anyone you want in your family.”
Helen nodded slowly. “An interesting point. It’s just they make it look so easy on those reality shows.”
“Nothing is real on those shows. The relationships don’t last. Jake’s going to find someone. Give him time.”
“I’ve given him two years. I’m not getting younger, you know.” Her expression turned wistful. “And I do want grandchildren.”
“Ask me on the right day and you can have the twins.”
Helen laughed. “I wish that were true.” Her humor faded. “Do you know my son?”
“We could start with a coffee date.”
Camryn sighed. “Helen, seriously. This isn’t going to work. Let him get his own girl.”
“He’s not. That’s the problem. All right, I can see I’m not going to convince you to be a willing participant. I appreciate your time.” She rose. “I meant what I said about the wrapping. I’ll arrange to have all my gifts taken to your store. And my holiday decorator will be in touch about the custom paper.”
“Is the holiday decorator different from the regular decorator?” Camryn asked before she could stop herself.
Helen chuckled. “Yes, she is. My regular decorator is temperamental and shudders at the thought of all that cheer and tradition. He came over close to Christmas a few years ago and nearly fainted when he saw the tree in the family room.”
She leaned close and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s devoted to all the ornaments Jake made for me when he was little. There are plaster handprints and little stars made out of Popsicle sticks. My favorite is a tuna can with a tiny baby Jesus in the manger tucked inside. There’s bits of straw and a star.” She pressed both hands to her heart. “I tear up thinking about it.”
Baby Jesus in a tuna can? Helen was one strange woman.
Camryn collected her briefcase and followed Helen to the front door. Helen opened it, then looked at her.
“You’re sure about not being a part of Project: Jake’s Bride?”
“Yes. Very.” Camryn kept her tone firm, so there would be no misunderstanding.
“A pity, but I respect your honesty.”
Camryn walked to her SUV and put her briefcase in the backseat. Once she was behind the wheel, she glanced at the three-story house rising tall and proud against the snow and gray sky.
The rich really were different, she told herself as she circled the driveway and headed for the main road. Different in a cray-cray kind of way.
She turned left on North Ribbon Road. When she reached Cypress Highway, she started to turn right—the shortest way back to town. At the last minute, she went straight. Even as she drove north, she told herself it wasn’t her business. Maybe Jake knew about his mother’s plans. Maybe he supported them.
Okay, not that, she thought, passing the outlet mall, then turning on Red Cedar Highway and heading up the mountain. She might not know Jake very well, but Reggie had dated him for months. Reggie was a sweetie who would never go out with a jerk. So Jake had to be a regular kind of guy, and regular guys didn’t approve of their mothers finding them wives.
Besides, she doubted Jake needed any help in that department. He was tall, good-looking and really fit. She’d caught sight of him jogging past her store more than once and was willing to admit she’d stopped what she was doing to admire the view. He was also wealthy. Men like that didn’t need help getting dates.
The sign for the resort came into view. She slowed for a second, then groaned as she drove up to the valet. Maybe she was making a mistake, but there was no way she couldn’t tell Jake what had just happened. It felt too much like not mentioning toilet paper stuck to someone’s shoe.
If he already knew, then it would be a short conversation. If he didn’t care, then she would quietly think less of him and leave. If he was as horrified as she thought he might be, then she’d done her good deed for the week and yay her. Whatever the outcome, she would have done the right thing, which meant she would be able to sleep that night. Some days that was as good as it was going to get.Excerpted from Home Sweet Christmas by Susan Mallery. Copyright © 2022 by Susan Mallery. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
Q & A with Susan Mallery
What inspired Home Sweet Christmas?
Inspiration is interesting—it can come from anywhere, or from seemingly nowhere. In the case of Home Sweet Christmas, the season itself inspired the story. The town of Wishing Tree, Washington, is all about Christmas, so every book set in Wishing Tree has a Christmas theme. (The first book in the series, The Christmas Wedding Guest, came out last year. Each book can be read as a standalone.)
So that was my starting point, knowing that this book would have a holiday theme. To me, it’s important for a Christmas book to be intrinsically Christmas-themed, not just a story that could happen at any time of year. I brainstormed lots of possibilities.
I landed on ideas for the two heroines (Home Sweet Christmas is two romances in one). In one storyline, Camryn’s mother passed away last year, so Camryn gave up everything—her career, her condo, her fiancé, and her big-city life in Chicago—to move home to care for her sisters and run the family business, a gift-wrapping specialty store called Wrap Around the Clock. She plans to get back to her “real life” as soon as her sisters graduate high school, so the last thing she wants to do is to fall in love. Still, a little temporary romance with Jake, her teenage crush, sounds like a welcome distraction.
In the second storyline, River is new in town and very shy. To coax her out of her shell, her new friends nominate her for Snow Queen, a crown that River is reluctant to accept—until she meets the very handsome Snow King, Dylan. But River has been burned before by a man with too many secrets, and Dylan is hiding something big.
You’re so wonderful at writing emotional scenes. Do you have any tips for writers who want to portray difficult issues like betrayal or loss of a loved one in their books?
The emotion springs from character. Every person will react differently to betrayal or loss, so it’s important that you fully develop your characters so that they essentially take over. Emotions are nuanced and infinitely complex, and our reactions are colored by everything we have experienced and observed throughout our lives. Put yourself inside your character’s mind and heart fully before you start writing the scene.
If I’m not feeling something as I write the scene, readers won’t feel it as they read. Writing these scenes is not an intellectual exercise—it’s visceral, emotional. If the feeling isn’t there for me, I stop writing and take a few minutes to get myself there. I have to be fully immersed in a character’s point-of-view in order to write these pivotal scenes.
Your novels are always gripping, realistic and romantic. How do you come up with your plots?In the world of fiction-writing, there’s a spectrum of plotters versus those who write “from the seat of their pants,” or pantsers. I am on the extreme plotter end of this spectrum, meaning that I write a very detailed plot for a book before I begin writing it. Far from limiting me, this roadmap frees me to immerse myself in the emotions of the characters because I’ve already untangled any snags in the story.
I start to develop a story idea in my head, jotting down notes but mostly just giving my mind the freedom to roam. At this stage, it’s mostly about thinking about the characters and their backstory.
Then I write one scene for each point-of-view character. In the case of Home Sweet Christmas, this meant that I wrote one scene each for Camryn, Jake, River and Dylan. I write until that character clicks in my head and feels like a real person with thoughts and feelings of her or his own. Then I stop writing and plot that character’s storyline onto index cards. I do that for each character, and then I sit down with the index cards and weave the storylines together. Then I number the cards and start writing.
My plotting is essentially the world’s shortest first draft. There are bits of dialogue, but mostly it’s a scene-by-scene synopsis of what’s going to happen in the book.
Is it difficult to come up with a specific Holiday themed novel every year?
It’s definitely a challenge! Not only because the story needs to be holiday-centric but feel different from all the other Christmas books I’ve written, but because of the very tight timeline. Home Sweet Christmas starts a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, so that gave me a little breathing room, but for all intents and purposes, when you write a Christmas book the characters have to fall in love in about four weeks. And it needs to happen in such a way as to feel completely genuine, so readers feel confident that the love will last forever.
Do you decorate your writing room when you are writing a holiday book?No, but I do pull out my Grinch ornament, which helps me get in the spirit.
What’s your favorite holiday tradition?
I love to adopt a family through a local program. Mr. Mallery and I take great joy in finding special gifts that are unique to every family member—some from their wish list, and some surprises that we hope they’ll enjoy.
Rumor has it that you’ve created a cookie cookbook that you’re giving away for free. True?
True! The Wishing Tree Cookie Cookbook is available for free in the Members area at SusanMallery.com to anyone who wants it. It includes 160 recipes submitted by readers, with lots of pictures. It’s a PDF file, but I will also be giving away a printed copy of the cookbook every Tuesday from October 4 through December 20 on my Facebook page. I’ll also give away three as door prizes at my virtual event with Debbie Macomber on November 9. Details and registration at https://bit.ly/debbieandsusan
What’s next for you?
The Sister Effect will be coming in March. It’s both one of the most emotional stories I’ve ever written and one of the funniest. Finley and Sloane were really tight when they were growing up. Their mom kept leaving them with their grandpa while she went on the road with theatre troupes, so they had to watch out for each other. But as they grew up, they made different choices that drove a wedge between them. The Sister Effect is a beautiful, uplifting story of forgiveness and reconciliation and the importance of family.
About the Author
SUSAN MALLERY is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of novels about the relationships that define women’s lives—family, friendship, romance. Library Journal says, “Mallery is the master of blending emotionally believable characters in realistic situations,” and readers seem to agree—40 million copies of her books have sold worldwide. Her warm, humorous stories make the world a happier place to live.
Susan grew up in California and now lives in Seattle with her husband. She’s passionate about animal welfare, especially that of the ragdoll cat and adorable poodle who think of her as mom.
(Thanks to Harlequin Audio for my complimentary copy. All opinions are my own.)