“So what you’re saying is, there’s no room at the inn?” Maren wanted to be clear before she lost her shit.
The woman, Mrs. Dorrie Langston, made an expression of regret. Then she lifted a plate. “Cookie? The Halliday Inn is famous for its spritzes.”
Deep breath, in through the nose. Exhale. “No thank you.” See? She could be polite to the nice lady offering cookies. Maren even managed a smile, miserly as it was. “I’m trying to understand how this happened.”
Mrs. Langston set the plate down on the desk and referred back to her computer screen. “It says here that a Ms. Jane-”
“Diaz,” Maren interrupted. “Or, that is, it was Flannery, now it’s Diaz.”
Mrs. Langston’s eyes lit up. “Oh yes, I remember now. She mentioned something about hoping for a ring for her birthday. So she already got married, then? That was fast. How romantic!”
Maren’s fists clenched. “Yes. Very romantic.” Her assistant Jane’s whirlwind affair with a Spaniard who owned an orange plantation in Valencia had been very fast and very destructive to Maren’s business plans. “Now what did Jane do with my lease?”
Mrs. Langston took a cookie from the plate and nibbled as she reviewed the notes on the computer. “Yes, Jane Flannery called, we negotiated the terms, we sent her the lease for the shop and she never got it back to us.”
Maren muttered a curse under her breath.
“What’s a pop up shop anyway?” Mrs. Langston frowned and squinted.
Deep breath. In through the nose. Try not to scream in front of God and everyone.
“A pop up shop is a temporary storefront, meant to draw seasonal crowds and encourage brand buzz.” Maren said the words almost by rote, as well she should. She’d been preaching and pushing for pop-ups at Cashmere Home for the past twelve months, staking her career on this expansion into the American market. Everything hinged on the first pop-up shop, here in Mistletoe Key.
Maren had done thorough market research. She knew the median ages of the visitors to Mistletoe Key every holiday season for the past decade, their breakdowns by gender, by geographic locations. She knew the top restaurants in the area, where the tourists stayed, what they did for entertainment. The Mistletoe Key Chamber of Commerce had practically assigned her a full-time rep who had sarcastically asked if she was just going to move here and pay dues already. Maren knew everything about this prime market for her client. Except, apparently, how to hire an assistant that would actually do her job.
“Mrs. Langston. I would really appreciate your assistance here. Apparently, the lease got misplaced in the shuffle around Jane’s departure.” Yeah right. It had probably been stuck between the pages of the twenty-five pounds of wedding magazines that Maren had cleared from Jane’s cubicle after Jane had hasta-luego-ed herself to Valencia as a new senora.
“Well, I don’t think there’s anything I can do at this point. When we didn’t get the lease back, we took the next applicant. Model trains.”
Maren shook her head. “What?”
“Model trains,” Mrs. Langston repeated with emphasis. “That’s what the gentleman is selling. He’s coming down from Charleston.”
Maren looked across the Halliday Inn’s lobby at the space where her pop up was supposed to be opening on Thanksgiving weekend. The Inn wasn’t a large hotel, by international standards, but it was the biggest one on the island, where the bulk of tourists put up their feet during the holidays. And the pop up shop wasn’t going to be huge, either. Just a cozy nook, tucked behind the old antique fire place, perfect for spontaneous Christmas gift buying.
“Homemade model trains. I think it will be a hit, personally.” Mrs. Langston was still going on about the trains and then she looked chagrined. “Of course, I’m sure your diapers would have been very much needed.”
Maren paused at the non sequitur. “I’m sorry. Did you say, diapers?”
The other woman peered at the screen again. “Yes. It says here that you wanted to sell Huggies at your little shop.” Mrs. Langston looked up at Maren over the rim of her bifocals. “It’s a practical item, that’s for sure. Popular with all the families with young ones.”
Maren couldn’t deal. “Not diapers. Not huggies.” Inhale. Control. Inhale. Inhale. “Cashmere Home is the preeminent British retailer for hygge-inspired home decor.”
Mrs. Langston nodded. “Huggie.”
Maren repeated slowly. “Hee-you-geh.”
“Hygge.” Now Maren said the Danish word, just as she’d practiced it over and over in her bathroom mirror before she’d interviewed for the brand merchandising and strategy director position at Cashmere Home. The Hygge lifestyle was all the rage in Northern Europe and the British Isles. Maren had staked her career on making it huge in America.
Until Jane Diaz Flannery had not returned a simple lease. But maybe there was still a way…
“What if I can get my office in London to email us a scanned copy of the lease?” Maren checked her watch. Surely someone was still in the office at… she did the math… ten pm?
Mrs. Langston looked inexplicably sad. “And let poor Mr. Chang down?”
How Maren didn’t throw her hands up in the air she did not know. “Who. Is. Mr. Chang?”
“Only the best model train designer in South Carolina!” Mrs. Langston smiled like, oh-of-course! THAT Mr. Chang! How could Maren not think of poor Mr. Chang of Charleston? Silly Maren.
Mrs. Langston reached for the plate of cookies. “Are you sure you don’t want to try a spritz? These have raspberry jam on them.”
And just then. All of Maren’s remaining hygge evaporated into the humid Florida Keys atmosphere. “No. Thank you. I am gluten intolerant.”
Maren immediately regretted her sharp tone when Mrs. Langston immediately looked both shocked and concerned. “Oh my poor girl.”
But although Mrs. Langston’s concern was unnecessary, Maren was a spectacular businesswoman. She would use Mrs. Langston’s weakness and exploit it.
“Yes. Because of this extreme medical condition, I cannot enjoy cookies. Furthermore, I have a shipment of Europe’s finest hygge home goods being delivered in forty-eight hours and I really am going to need a place to install my pop-up shop.” Inwardly, Maren groaned. That was the best she could do? That had been terrible. It was the jet lag. And the humidity. And Mr. Chang’s fault for coming in and stealing her lease with his stupid model trains.
“I’m sorry but-”
Maren cut her off. “Is there a manager I can speak to?”
The older woman looked regretful. “I suppose you could talk to the owner, Mr. Callahan-”
“But he has an important meeting and cannot be disturbed.”
“For how long?”
Mrs. Langston hit a few keys on the computer. Her eyebrows rose slowly at whatever she saw there. “This could take a while.”
This time Maren couldn’t stop the soft curse word from coming out. All her plans, all her research, all her carefully selected merchandise. She had a very small window to make the Cashmere Home pop-up shop a rousing success. She had to think on her feet.
“Could you recommend a leasing agent? Or a real estate agent?” There had to be another location that was acceptable for the project.
Mrs. Langston made a face. “You do realize it’s November.”
“Yes, we have the same seasons in England,” Maren couldn’t help replying.
“And that Christmas is next month?”
“Same holidays as well. All the mainstream religious holidays that happen all around the globe.”
But Mrs. Langston did not laugh at Maren’s dry humor. Instead she reached for a spritz cookie and snapped it in half, pale crumbs fluttering down over the computer keyboard. “This is Mistletoe Key, honey. Things run a little bit differently ‘round here.”
Once a year, Charlie Callahan was called in front of the firing squad.
Ordinarily, Charlie did not agree to distasteful events. Uncomfortable, unpleasant or merely boring invitations were declined with a good natured wink and an easy smile. Charlie was blessed with a personality that people loved, above-average good looks and a way for making the ladies (and the gents) feel better about themselves when they left his presence.
But this meeting was required.
Under the terms of his trust, Charlie had to meet with the trustee on an annual basis, to review the financials, the reports and the distributions for the year. Since Charlie hadn’t lived off his trust in years, the meeting was unnecessary and… well, boring.
Under normal circumstances, then, Charlie would have politely told the trustee that he was sorry, but he would not be able to come to the office at the Halliday Inn because (a) his dog needed a bath, (b) Charlie had a pedicure appointment or (c) his dog had a pedicure appointment.
Most people laughed at those excuses, and most of those people understood that Charlie’s dog, Clover, did need a bath on at least a weekly basis and Charlie and Clover both enjoyed regular pedicures does at the Miss Le Toes Nail Salon. After all, they lived on Mistletoe Key, an island in the Florida Keys where sandals and flip flops were appropriate footwear 98% of the time. No one wanted janky toes on Mistletoe Key.
But these were not normal circumstances and the meeting with the trustee was not something that Charlie could charm his way out of. The trustee was his father, Big Jim Callahan, and Big Jim took his parental (and fiduciary) duties quite seriously.
As Charlie loved his father, he had no other choice but to let him ramble on for the next… he checked his watch.
Big Jim noticed. “Do you have some other place you’d rather be?” His deep voice rumbled as he looked over his half-moon shaped reading glasses. The glasses were a bit incongruous on his big, burly frame but Charlie suspected his dad had gotten them in preparation for the day he would - maybe, hopefully, with a bit of luck and electioneering - serve as town Santa Claus. “A pedicure appointment, perhaps?” Big Jim knew his son well.
“Nope, not til five,” Charlie said easily. “Just wondering if it’s too early to get some spritzes in here.”
Big Jim Callahan had inherited the Halliday Inn when he was twenty-two and took great pride in not only the family legacy of operating the largest and oldest hotel on Mistletoe Key, but also the world-famous signature cookie that the Inn was known for. He immediately punched a button on his phone. “Mrs. Langston, can we get a plate of spritzes, please?”
Charlie also knew his father well. And no one could resist Halliday Inn spritzes.
Big Jim settled his reading glasses and focused back on the business at hand. “Now, you’ll see on page four, the income projections-”
He was interrupted by a brisk knock and the immediate entry of Mrs. Langston, hotel manager, bearing a plate of cookies. She set the cookies down in front of Charlie, patted his shoulder affectionately and handed a slip of paper to Big Jim. “This is the situation I told you about,” Mrs. Langston said right before leaving, “About that woman with the diaper shop.”
Big Jim studied the message for a moment and when he popped a spritz cookie in his mouth, Charlie jumped on the opportunity.
“Dad, we don’t need to go over the rest of it.” He held up a hand. “I know what the numbers say. I know you’ve done a great job with the money grandma left, but I’m fine. You don’t have to worry about me.”
Big Jim didn’t wait for the crumbs to fall off his mustache. “Charlie, I’m always going to worry about you-”
“You don’t have a job, you have no visible means of support, you live on a boat and run off to the Bahamas doing God knows what with who knows who-”
“Dad, we’ve been over this, I’ve told you-”
“You are a gambler.”
Charlie shook his head. “I’m lucky.”
“You can’t get by on luck.”
“Actually, I can.” Charlie was unfazed and reached for a cookie. The kind of raspberry jam on top. His favorite.
Big Jim pressed his lips together and looked at his son with a dismay that only well-intentioned, conservative parents can convey. “I got you that job at the ice rink.”
“And I took it to make you happy,” Charlie finished that thought for his dad. “And because we were going through a heat wave and Clover liked sleeping next to the ice. But I didn’t need the job, Dad, and it didn’t seem right to take a salary that could go to someone else in need. I do plenty well.”
Big Jim took off his reading glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Son, frankly, I find that hard to believe.”
Charlie grinned and leaned back in his chair. “I’ve offered to show you. Come down to Nassau with me one weekend and you’ll see.”
A few times a year Charlie sailed to the Bahamas to take part in poker tournaments there. Every time he came back with his bank account decidedly richer. He’d done this for years but his dad refused to see the light, as he was doing right now, with his stubborn head shaking.
Big Jim reached into a drawer and pulled out a small box. He slid it across the table to his son. “I want you to consider this.”
Because a lucky guy like him always took advantage of timing, Charlie stuffed a cookie in his mouth and accepted the box. Flipping open the lid he saw several hundred business cards.
J. Charles Callahan, Jr.
Real Estate Broker
Mistletoe Key, Florida
His full name. A very official sounding job title. A real estate license that he had never used since he was eighteen and his dad had signed him up for the course.
It would be very easy to say yes to his father. With Charlie’s luck, he’d passed the real estate exam with flying colors on the first try, without even studying. He had a knack for investments, too. For years, he’d taken his poker winnings and day traded his way to a solid seven figures. Real estate, especially in booming Mistletoe Key, would be equally as profitable for him.
And it would make his dad happy. That was the sucker punch, wasn’t it? Big Jim and Charlie were as different as apple cider and hot chocolate, but the bond was real. The Callahans loved each other, even if the rest of his high-falutin’ trust fund crew didn’t understand Charlie’s knack for poker or appreciate his living on his sailboat.
But agreeing to this was more than accepting a made-up title at the community ice rink. Agreeing to something like this meant that Big Jim wanted him to settle down, be responsible, act like a true Callahan at last.
At that just wasn’t going to work for Charlie.
“Before you say no,” Big Jim said, interrupting Charlie’s Deep Thoughts. “Let’s make this more interesting.”
Charlie’s favorite phrase. He was immediately intrigued.
Big Jim continued, “If you lose, you have to work for the family business. Permanently.”
“And if I win?” Charlie prompted.
Big Jim smiled. “Your trust will be revoked.”
Freedom. No more meetings, no more expectations. No one looking over his shoulder disapprovingly. If he didn’t receive their money, they’d have no strings over him.
There had to be a catch.
“What do I have to do?”
“Prove to me you’re as lucky as you say you are,” Big Jim said, with a guileless expression.
This did make Charlie frown. He’d never really tried to be lucky. Luck had always just been there, on his side, helping him out like a good buddy offering a pickup truck to help him move.
“How?” Charlie asked.
Big Jim handed over the message that Mrs. Langston had brought in earlier. “Find this woman a lease for her business.”
Charlie took the slip of paper. “That’s it?”
“Here in Mistletoe Key.”
That narrowed it down, but still not too bad.
“In the next three days.”
That was… more challenging.
“You do realize it’s…”
“November, yes,” Big Jim finished that sentence for his son.
A real estate lease in Mistletoe Key? In November? For anyone else it was impossible but… Charlie couldn’t help the grin that broke across his face.
He was going to finally show his father exactly how lucky Charlie Callahan really was.
No one really knew the back story of how Chris “The Elf” Krungel came to live in Mistletoe Key. Some said he was an ex-CIA agent who had tried to overthrow Castro back in the 80’s and moved to the Keys as a sleeper instigator. Some said he’d had a doomed love affair with a legendary Broadway actress and left New York City to direct the mermaid show in Mistletoe Key to cure his broken heart. But no matter what the true facts were, Charlie had to admire The Elf’s style… and his success rate at picking horse races.
Every Tuesday morning, Charlie and The Elf met up outside the Sugar & Spice Bakery to enjoy their coffee and freshly baked pastries and go over the horse racing sheets for the week. Now Charlie was, by far, the luckiest at pretty much any betting activity, but The Elf was right there with him with both luck and knowledge of the ponies.
The Elf sat there in his crisp white guayabera, his Panama hat tilted just so and an unlit Cuban cigar expertly perched in the corner of his mouth. He was the picture of a stereotypical South Florida shady character - something Charlie could only aspire to be. After all, his background was annoyingly WASP-y and he could never pull off a crisp white shirt like that - freshly ironed cotton did not mix with living with his dog on a boat.
“So you took this bet?” The Elf asked after taking a sip of his cafe con leche. Charlie had just finished recounting the story of his dad’s challenge. “To find this woman an available commercial space a month before Christmas?”
Charlie folded the newspaper pages and looked at his gambling colleague. “Why. You wouldn’t?” It was surprising. The Elf was a man who could get things done - and if he couldn’t… maybe Charlie shouldn’t be taking this one on.
The Elf squinted into the morning sun and gave his head a little shake. “It’s tough odds, that’s for sure. A month before Christmas, the whole island is all rented out. Not sure what you can find…”
When The Elf trailed off like that… Nope. Charlie downed the rest his gingerbread latte. He was lucky, he reminded himself, even luckier than The Elf. “Remember Cardinal’s Song at the Derby?” he asked. “Almost taken out of the race two days before because of that hoof problem?”
The Elf eyed him with interest. “Yeah, I remember. You had a feeling. Put ten grand on a horse with an ingrown toenail.”
Charlie chuckled. “And how did that work out.”
“You bought me a nice steak dinner in Palm Beach,” The Elf admitted begrudgingly.
“I sure did.” Charlie rolled up the newspaper and smacked the table as he pushed his chair back. He pretended to tip an imaginary Panama hat back at The Elf and laid a five on the table as a tip to Jeannie, the bakery barista.
After taking his leave, he decided he’d walk down the main thoroughfare of town and see what he saw. With his luck, he’d run into an old neighbor who had just finished a renovation on the perfect shop space, right on the square.
Because that’s how it always worked for Charlie. He met friends in low places, won over influencers and had great timing. He bought low, sold high and dated supermodels who had just sworn off men after their boybander boyfriends broke up with them. So there was no reason to believe that this time would be any different.
As he was passing the brightly colored windows of the local yarn store, The Knit Before Christmas, the front door flew open, barely missing his face.
“UGH!” A frustrated cry broke from the young woman who had nearly committed assault with a store door. “Who do I have to sleep with to get a lease in this town?” she muttered.
Charlie bit back a grin at the words that obviously were not meant for him and took a look at the little pistol who had fired them off.
She was a petite brunette, with a cute face even all pink and scrunched up as it was right now with anger. She probably had a cute little figure too but it was hard to tell as bundled up as she was in a sweater, a big plaid scarf and heavy socks that were pulled up over her boots practically to her knees.
“Can I help you?” he asked. The woman was around his age but judging from her winter clothing she was new in town. Maybe came onshore from a cruise ship, just in from Juneau or Winnipeg.
Wait a second…
“Did I hear you say you were looking for a lease?” Charlie smiled. This is exactly how his luck always worked. A door just missed his face and there was the woman who he’d been looking for.
Maren turned slowly to face the man who said the magic L word. He was tall and rangy, with light blond hair that hadn’t seen a professional stylist’s set of scissors in months. His faded blue t-shirt with a green alligator head had holes in it and his striped shorts seemed to also be swim trunks.
She didn’t have time to be judgy, though. Time was running short. Her hygge home goods were unfortunately on schedule to be delivered in thirty-six very short hours and if she didn’t have a place to display them… Maren shuddered. She’d be laughed out of the industry. Known as the woman who hosted a pop up shop out of cardboard boxes on a street corner in Florida. It didn’t get more pathetic than that.
“Yes, I need a commercial space for immediate use,” she said, putting her hand out.
“Maren Pine.” The man said her name as he took her hand.
“How do you know my name?” she said carefully. After all, he had holes in his shirt. What level of suspicious grunginess was she dealing with here?
Then he smiled. And Maren got the distinct impression that that toothy, lazy grin won a lot of women’s hearts. Not that she was immune. Oh sure, she got the picture. His smile was the kind of smile one earned after a lazy Sunday in bed. But Maren Pine was in no mood to be wooed. She needed results. Fast.
“How do you know my name,” she repeated, delicately removing her hand from his.
“I’m Charlie Callahan. At your service.”
Again with that slightly sexy insinuation. Sure. It probably worked for him most of the time. But buddy, not today.
Still, the name rang a bell. “Callahan?” she repeated as a fizzy feeling made her jump in her boots. “Did the train guy back out? Do I get my spot in the hotel back?”
The man - Charlie - frowned briefly. “Ah no, no.”
Pfft. The words deflated her fizz. “But you’re the owner of the Halliday Inn? Ms. Langston said you could help me.”
Charlie brightened. “I’m not the owner, but I am the next best thing.”
Maren fought the urge to scream. “What is that?”
Charlie’s dimple winked at her. “I’m the man who will make your dreams come true.”
“I’m the man who will make your dreams come true.”
Not bloody likely. Maren glared at the man - Charlie, he said his name was - who was currently fumbling with yet another locked door. This was the third - no, wait, the fourth - property he’d shown her today and he had yet to expeditiously open a lock.
“Do you need some help opening a door?” Maren couldn’t help but ask, knowing she sounded like a snotty brat. But really, her available emotional response well at this point consisted of snippy sarcasm or throwing herself down on the sand of Mistletoe Key’s nicest beach and having a good, long, snotty cry.
It was too soon for unrestrained sobbing. Not until she was sure that there was no other option.
The tips of Charlie’s ears went red. “No, thank you,” he grunted as he simultaneously yanked on the door handle and shoved his heel into the door.
“Is it the humidity?” she drawled blandly. He had used that excuse the first few times too.
“Yes.” Charlie kicked the door harder and it popped open. “And no one locks their doors on Mistletoe Key.” He frowned at the door like it had insulted him.
“Uh huh.” Maren didn’t buy his excuses. Who didn’t lock their doors to empty properties? Especially dilapidated tropical hellholes like the places Charlie was showing her. She stepped over the the peeling paint of the threshold and blinked her eyes at the dark, dank interior of the cottage Charlie had assured her was just the place for the Cashmere Home hygge pop up.
The tears started welling up. It was the dust. The mildew. The sand. The humidity. All combined together.
Stop it right now.
She blinked. Metaphorically pulled up her big girl panties.
The house had looked so promising from the outside. Yes, the white paint on the clapboard was peeling - but vintage was in. And yes, the beach cottage looked like it was about to teeter into the rising tide - but the sound of the waves was the ultimate relaxation noise.
But inside… this was so not hygge.
“Charlie?” She called his name as sweetly as possible, reminding herself that she was both a professional and the spokesperson for Cashmere Home and the hygge way of life. She needed to be diplomatic about this.
The real estate agent ducked through the doorway, rubbing his hands together, looking somehow… boyishly optimistic? What the hell did he see in this place? “Just what you were looking for, right?”
“No.” Maren watched his smile dissipate into confusion. “Maybe I should have been clearer about what I need.”
“You said you wanted an available retail space for the next six weeks.” He threw his hands wide. “This is totally available and I can get you a great deal on it.”
Maren picked her words carefully. “I’m sure you can. Because there’s a hole in the floor.” She pointed at the two foot wide gaping space in the middle of what once was a living room.
“It’s good for storage,” Charlie said with a nod. “And, uh, if you had something tall you could put it there so that it didn’t hit the ceiling.”
“Right.” She pointed up. “There’s also a matching hole in the ceiling.”
“For the tall thing. A Christmas tree! You could get a huge one, put it right there and it’s…” Charlie nodded and trailed off… “Great for um…”
His mouth slid over in a roguish smile. “Stars. Over the beach, you can see all the way up to the Milky Way.”
Somewhere deep down in Maren’s heart, something twinged at the romantic thought of stargazing in the surf with this sun-kissed stud. But she stuffed it down and got back to business. “Look, I need a retail spot for my hygge home goods. Hygge is a Danish concept. It means feeling cozy, safe, warm. It means enjoying time with friends, family, graciousness and simplicity.” Maren pointed at a corner of the room. “Crabs are not hygge.”
A mass of sand crabs lazily scuttled around in a circle, doing whatever crabs do. Maren took a deep breath. No crying yet.
“So here’s the deal, Charlie Callahan. You either find me a retail location where I can sell a cozy, safe, warm, welcoming batch of cashmere, coffee and crumpets with NO CRABS. Or I will find another real estate agent who can.”
And although Charlie nodded and looked like he was taking her instructions - and threat - seriously, what he said next showed that he didn’t.
“Good luck to you.”
“This is it, sweetheart.”
Maren almost imploded. Sweetheart? She had been shown a house with matching sun and surf holes and crabs and he called her SWEETHEART?!?
“I’ve shown you all that’s left on the island.” He held up a hand and started ticking off his fingers. “You got the trailer on Noel Lane-”
“It was a trailer still attached to someone’s van!” Maren corrected him. “My store could literally be dragged off in the middle of the night.”
He held up another finger. “There’s the backroom at Billy Dean’s.”
“A butcher. You want me to sell cashmere slippers and hundred dollar candles behind the place where sausage is made.”
He wisely skipped his third finger, but still counted off. “Three. The gazebo at the amphitheater. Now that’s a prime location.”
“With no walls. At the end of the dock, over the bay. There’s nothing cozy or warm or safe about all my items being blown away or doused by constant ocean spray.”
“Or this.” Charlie waved a hand around the cottage. “Honestly, I think this is perfect for your needs.”
Maren sputtered. She was quite sure she had never actually sputtered in her entire life but here, in this well-ventilated cottage with the bonus sea life exhibit, she sputtered a very intimidating response. “P..p…per..fect?”
“Sure. It’s not attached to a van. You don’t have to walk through a meat locker to get here and…” He reached over and knocked on a wall with a knuckle. “Real wood walls to keep the breeze out.”
She could only stand and stare at the supreme confidence of this man. Honestly, maybe he was the finest real estate salesman on the Eastern Seaboard, because when he put it that way, she had to stop and consider… is this what gas lighting felt like?
Was she crazy? She looked down at the hole in the floor, up at the hole in the ceiling. The exposed wires peeking through hastily repaired patches in the walls. And oh yeah - the extended family of crabs in the corner. She closed her eyes, counted to ten, but stopped at five. There was no need to go further.
She was not crazy and this was not hygge. It was a verified shithole. And she was not settling, now or ever.
Maren opened her eyes and calmly told her real estate agent, “You’re fired.”
The word rang in his ears as Maren Pine stomped past him and exited the crumbling clapboard beach shack.
She fired him.
He shook his head. Maybe he had run into the crooked door. Maybe a coconut had dropped through that skylight and made him hear things that weren’t real.
He couldn’t have been… fired? Things like that didn’t happen to Charlie Callahan.
No, Charlie Callahan got hired. He was offered jobs all the time, for positions he wasn’t even qualified for. People thought he looked smart, trustworthy, good with the alphabet, what the hell, give old Charlie Callahan the gig. It was part of his charm, his… luck.
A second sobering thought. What if…
No. He couldn’t go there.
It was unthinkable.
His luck hadn’t run out on him.
It was just this impossible, entitled, ridiculous woman who thought she could come to the island right before Christmas and demand a perfect spot for this Norwegian lifestyle bullcrap. Or was it Swedish?
Didn’t matter. Because she wasn’t going to get everything she wanted. Cozy. Family. Candlelight. A month before Christmas? On Mistletoe Key? What she was asking for was a freaking miracle on the same level as a virgin birth. This island was pretty darn magical in December but not even lucky Charlie could pull that off for her.
Charlie pulled the crooked door shut and wrestled with the lock. Yes, humidity did these things to doors next to the ocean, he’d heard. He’d never actually had a problem with it, ‘cause up til now he’d been…
Charlie shook his head again like his dog Clover when she jumped out of the water. Nope. He was still lucky. Just because he couldn’t find a empty spot perfect for Miss High and Mighty didn’t mean he wasn’t lucky. And look - he’d found her four available spots! How lucky was that? It wasn’t his fault none of them fit her unrealistic standards.
But as he walked toward Maren Pine’s rental car, he knew in his gut that this wasn’t right.
It wasn’t just the bet he had made with his Dad about finding Ms. Pine an appropriate location for her retail venture (even though losing that bet would stick in his craw for years, decades, even.) It was his Luck. That thing he had always depended on. Like a phantom appendage or a fifth sense. It wasn’t something Charlie could point to, but he’d always known he had it.
With each step toward Maren Pine, he knew. Luck was still on his side. He just had to be still. Listen. Wait.
What had she said she needed again?
And just then, right as he reached the Chevy hatchback, Charlie’s luck clicked.
He tapped on the driver’s side window and Maren rolled it down. It was pretty decent of her to wait for him since she’d driven him out to the beach shack - and then fired him.
“Are you riding back with me?” She asked like she’d really prefer that he take an alternate form of transportation.
“I’ve got one more possibility. I can’t promise that it’s available but if you want to take a look at it, I think it might check all of your boxes.”
She looked at her phone and with a sigh, she put it down and said, “Get in.”
As soon as she saw it, Maren knew this was the place. It could have no ceiling and have a family of rabid eels living in it and she was ninety-eight percent sure she could make it work.
Honestly, it took her breath away.
The lighthouse was in a small green space, halfway between the bustling town center and the anonymous highway. Strangely, although it over looked the water, it was not right on the water’s edge. Instead it was in the middle of a huge flower garden. Even though it was November and late autumn everywhere else in the Northern hemisphere, here in the Florida Keys the garden boasted every shade and size of pink bloom.
“You want to look inside?”
She nodded, afraid that by speaking she might break the spell, and simply followed Charlie as he cut through the flower bushes on a narrow path and approached a door.
The tower was made of stone, unlike anything else she’d seen on Mistletoe Key or anywhere in Florida, for that matter. And the door was like something out of a fairytale princess movie. It was curved and wooden with large brass fixtures and one of those little peephole doors. And Charlie had no issues with the lock or key or humidity with this door - it swung open straightaway.
She nearly ran into Charlie’s back because he stopped right before he stepped over the threshold. “Now I just need to warn you. It hasn’t been updated in a while.”
“As long as it has a roof…” Maren muttered while also cringing at how low her standards had fallen in the last twenty-four hours. Honestly, maybe she should just call the whole thing off. Call back to HQ in London. Let them know that American laws prohibited her from taking a rental space that her ex-assistant had negligently forgotten to pay for.
But then she stepped inside the fairytale lighthouse.
It was dusty, sure. Some corners looked like they hadn’t seen sunlight in a decade or two. The fixtures were sparse but in good working order.
The ground floor was a large circular room. Maren started tracing a possible layout in her mind. Here she could do a table with the checkout tablet and gift bags. There she could set up the display of scarves and mittens. Here the scented candles. And oh!
A circular staircase wound up, up and up. The brass handrail was unpolished but still glowed warmly under her hand as she slowly walked up the stairs.
By the time she reached the top, Maren’s business brain had completely shut down. She was simply enjoying the moment and the thrill of discovery. The wonder of finding something like this, something so thoroughly unexpected was almost overwhelming.
At the top of the stairs, there was a metal door. It was heavy, meant to withstand torrential wind and rains and Charlie reached around and helped shove it open for her.
Funny. She had forgotten he was there.
Forty-five minutes ago she had canceled him. Fired him, even.
Now? She peeked behind her and saw Charlie Callahan in a new light. He was gorgeous and not useless at all.
“Go on,” he urged with a light in his eyes that showed he was enjoying showing off this place.
The door was a bit lower than most so she ducked a little and came out in the bright Florida sunshine again. They were on a metal walkway that circled the building. They walked around the decking, which seemed sturdy and well-kept enough and came to a large glass and steel contraption, unlike anything Maren had ever seen before. A curved tin plate nearly three feet wide faced out to sea and in front of it was a large reinforced glass bulb, not unlike an old scuba helmet.
The light of the lighthouse. Maren wasn’t sure how it worked but she didn’t care. She had to rent this spot out for her shop. Sure, it was a little out of the commercial district. She’d figure out how to lure the tourists out here. Hell, she’d bus them out if she had to.
And maybe it wasn’t as traditionally Christmas-y as the Halliday Inn, but Maren saw potential in every inch of this old place. More than that, but it practically exuded hygge. From the stone to the brass to the roses to the sea, everything made her feel calm. Rooted. Like she belonged.
This was a place for contemplation. For celebration. For commercialization. Maren smiled, turned to Charlie Callahan, and said, “It’s perfect!” She blinked back tears in surprise and knew that it wasn’t just her. Charlie felt it too, here. There was an undeniable atmosphere of… well, the only word she could use was love.
Love seeped out of every crack.
“Thank you so much for bringing me here.” She laughed, giddy with the relief that all her issues were now solved. “I don’t know why you didn’t bring me here first but you were so right. You made all my dreams come true. I’ll take it, just give me the papers to sign.”
“Alright!” Charlie grinned right back and it was like the sun came out of the clouds. Two parrots landed on the roof of the lighthouse nearby, in a surreal symbol of all that was now going right for her in Mistletoe Key. A hot, very useful man had found her the pop-up shop location of her dreams on this tiny Florida island. What could go wrong now?
“Just one, tiny little thing…” Charlie’s one thousand watt lighthouse bulb smile dimmed. “It’s for family use only.”
Maren checked her reflection. Lipstick, sheath dress, heels, even. She’d only brought one fancy-ish outfit to Mistletoe Key, in case there was a fancy dinner or she decided to attend the grand opening with a splash.
She’d never dreamed that she would be attending Grandma Lucille’s 90th birthday party.
Which was entirely reasonable, since she had never even heard of Lucille Betancourt Callahan until her no good, terrible, awful real estate agent had tried to diffuse her very explainable anger at him.
She was still angry, of course. At her former assistant Jane nee Flannery Diaz, first and foremost. Then right up there on the top of the People that Maren Is Angry With List was Charlie Callahan. For showing her the most perfect location for her hygge pop up shop and then cruelly informing her that it was a private property held in trust and used only for family on family occasions.
Oh yes. Charlie Callahan was a but man. Maren recognized the type, the kind of man that never took no for an answer, never quit hustling.
In fact, she almost had to admire him for it.
His plan worked.
If she was able to successfully win Grandma Lucille’s approval tonight, Charlie promised her that his granny would lease the lighthouse to her.
Maren ran a hand over her hip, wishing she had time for an iron. She needed to make a perfect impression on Lucille Betancourt Callahan tonight. Or else she’d have to send all those hygge home goods back to London and watch her career go up like a dessicated Christmas tree accidentally lit on fire.
Wasn’t an option. She was going to do everything she could to get what she wanted. By the end of the night, that magical lighthouse was going to be leased to her.
As soon as he saw Maren in the lobby of the Halliday Inn, Charlie knew he was getting lucky.
Well, not getting lucky. He was, after all, luck personified.
See exhibit A. Maren Pine looking as fine as the last supermodel he’d had to dump after she got all clingy and wanted to know if he was ‘all in.’ He almost whistled when he saw her but something in her challenging eyes told him not to press his luck.
It had been a gamble taking her to Rose’s Lighthouse. Of course he’d known that the building, built as a memorial to children lost to yellow fever in 1900, was the longest of shots. But he was seriously running out of options and he just couldn’t let Maren Pine leave Mistletoe Key without a lease.
He couldn’t lose a bet. He wouldn’t give up on his luck and dammit it better not give up on him.
So Plan C it was. Escort Ms. Pine to his parents’ house. Introduce her to the entire Callahan crew and, after much celebration and feel good holiday cheer, ask Grandma Lucille oh-so-sweetly for one itsy-bitsy favor.
With the way Maren filled out that dress and the luck Charlie felt in the tropical November air, how could he go wrong?
As they started up the steps of his parents’ veranda he leaned in to remind her to ask Grandma Lucille about her pygmy goats, Ribbon and Tinsel.
He caught a whiff of gardenia, freshened with mint. Feminine. Intoxicating. He leaned in.
Maren stumbled on a step.
He caught her.
Her soft brown eyes widened. She bit her lip.
Damn, she smelled good. He did what he did. Leaned in to sniff and-
His sister Rachel smiled from the open front door. Her arm was curled around Grandma Lucille’s.
“Look who Charlie brought, Grandma.” Rachel was all mischief, even at her advanced age of twenty-three. “His girlfriend.”
“What?” Grandma Lucille scrunched up her face, peering beyond the glare of the porch light. “His what? His fiance?”
Don’t say it…
Rachel grinned. “Exactly, Grandma Lucille. Charlie brought the woman he is going to marry.”
Maren was surrounded by people she didn’t know, sitting on a candy cane striped couch next to the 90 year old guest of honor who kept smiling vaguely at all the well-wishers around her in between the times she was shooting Maren the evil eye.
Oh, where was Charlie?
It had all happened so fast. There had been a cheer. And a herd of family members in Christmas sweater vests and then Charlie had disappeared in the stampede. She had been pounded with questions, from the right and left. Did she want a champagne cocktail? (Yes.) Or an egg nog? (Yes, please.) Or a coconut margarita? (Oh dear God, YES!)
Some of the questions she couldn’t answer, and she resorted to mumbling, bumbling and then laughing nervously like a shoplifter caught with a cashmere blanket stuffed down his pants.
WHERE THE FORK WAS CHARLIE?
Maren noticed an older gentleman with fading blond hair across the room. He lifted a glass to her, a kind of a toast. Not soon enough, the bustle died down somewhat and the gossip and gently teasing questions were directed at another young cousin or sibling.
And Maren was left alone with Grandma Lucille. Now was her chance. To clear the air. Lay out her case. Propose a business arrangement with fair terms and over-market compensation for a short term lease of the lighthouse. According to Charlie, his grandmother held the lighthouse in high regard but she was a woman with a good heart and fair judgement. Surely they would be able to come to an agreement.
“I know why you’re here.” Lucille spoke first, startling Maren out of her last-minute calculations.
“Oh good,” Maren said with a sigh of relief. “I thought maybe you believed that nonsense at the door.” The thing the young woman had greeted the the door said. That ridiculous fiance accusation.
Lucille narrowed her light blue gaze on Maren. “That nonsense is my granddaughter.”
“Well, of course-” Maren tried to not flinch. “I just meant what she said.”
“I know what she said,” Lucille snapped. “Do you think that I’m a senile old woman who doesn’t remember things that happened twenty minutes ago?”
“N…n…no?” Maren stuttered.
“Speak up, girl.”
Lucille raised an eyebrow.
“I mean, yes.”
The eyebrow stayed up.
“Ma’am?” Maren finished, echoing the manners she’d heard so far at the party.
Lucille relaxed that white brow, but only just. “I know you’re here because Charlie’s trying to prove to his father that he doesn’t need his family anymore.”
Maren didn’t understand a word of that sentence but decided it was better to just vaguely nod than to take a risk by speaking and inadvertently offend the woman who literally held the keys to the castle.
“But that young man needs us. He needs our support and he needs to be working in the family business.”
“Surrounded by his closest, his nearest and dearest,” Maren supplied with a wave to the bustling rooms stuffed with people. After all, what was more hygge than a happy family gathering celebrating a long and well-lived life of their matriarch?
Lucille peered at Maren for a moment and then her expression cleared as she nodded.
“There’s a word for it, actually,” Maren ventured carefully. “Hygge.”
Lucille cautiously echoed the foreign word and Maren did too. “HEG-geh.”
“What language is that?” Lucille was suspicious but Maren was used to explaining. As she started off the well-rehearsed definition of the concept of hygge, Maren felt that little inner thrill that she got whenever things were going well.
Sometimes it really was this easy. Sometimes you win people over with a simple Danish word, an elegant candle burning, a house full of family and friends. Lucille clearly just got it. And once the ninety-year old grandmother truly understood the beauty of the hygge concept, she would have no problem renting the lighthouse to Maren.
“And this hygge word, this means that one stays connected to their family?” Lucille asked Maren.
“Oh extremely close,” Maren assured her.
“It means that a child would work with his father, so that the father could nurture and train the son?”
“Well…” Maren hedged a little. “Hygge doesn’t mean that all children must work with their parents, but certainly, it would be very hygge to do so.”
Lucille nodded thoughtfully. “And you’ve been teaching all this to Charlie, so that he can follow in his father’s business and run the largest hotel in the middle keys?”
This was getting a little specific, but hell. Why not.
Maren smiled back at Grandma Lucille. “Absolutely,” I said. “I’m 100% fully committed to the idea of the Charlie helping his father run his business.”
“Now wait just one cotton-candy pickin’ minute.” Charlie’s voice came from behind them.
“She’s your fiance,” Lucille said to her grandson, reaching for Maren’s hand. “You’ll need to start listening to her, the sooner the better. Isn’t that right, Meghan?”
“Maren,” Charlie corrected.
Lucille looked affronted. “Do you think I can’t remember what was said twenty minutes ago?”
Charlie looked directly at Maren and glared. “I wish I couldn’t.”
And Maren suddenly got the distinct feeling that the whole situation had just become way more complicated than a simple business lease.