Christmas at the Lake by Anita Hughes (Excerpt)

Christmas at the Lake by Anita Hughes (Excerpt)


Chapter One

It was Christmas Eve and in six hours, Rebecca Huntley was going to marry her college sweetheart, and the love of her life, Ben Cole. They had planned for the ceremony to be held in the small chapel at Grace Cathedral with its mosaic tile floor and stained-glass windows, where Rebecca had listened to the San Francisco Boys Chorus sing Christmas carols every year since she could remember, followed by an intimate yet lavish reception at the Four Seasons Hotel. After their send-off, Rebecca and Ben planned to climb into the vintage car she had rented from a local film company for the three-hour drive to Christmas Cove Lodge in the quaint village of Christmas Cove on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Rebecca was looking forward to the honeymoon more than anything. More than cutting the strawberry-infused wedding cake with lemon-buttercream frosting ordered from their favorite bakery on Fillmore Street. Even more than seeing the expression on Ben’s face when she walked down the aisle in her oyster-colored silk Mikado gown. The honeymoon was going to be seven days of ice-skating, exploring the Christmas market, and strolling along the lakefront. Rebecca had even booked a sleigh ride with real reindeer.

The best part about the honeymoon was that it would be just her and Ben together. They had both agreed on a strict no-work policy. No phones, no laptops, and no late meetings that started at 5:00 p.m. and somehow lasted so long that when they arrived home at 10:00 p.m., they ate whatever they could find in the fridge, standing up at the counter, before falling into bed.

They had been working too hard lately. The company they started eight years ago when they were students at UC Berkeley, a dating app called that matched up couples by the things they hated, instead of what they had in common, was about to go public. Their days were filled with meetings with venture capitalists.

It hadn’t helped that Rebecca decided not to hire a wedding planner. She didn’t want to simply show up at the church in her gown and have some woman in a severe black dress point her down the aisle when the organ music started. And she loved choosing the decor for the reception. She loved seeing the flower arrangements she had sketched for the florist become vases filled with crimson and white pansies. She had painstakingly picked out the party favors: small jars filled with coffee beans at each place setting.

All the weekends spent designing place cards, deciding on lighting and tablecloths, had been worth it. It was their wedding day, and they were going to remember it forever.

There was a knock at the door. The makeup artist wasn’t due for two hours. It was probably the bellboy delivering more wedding presents to be stacked on the dining table and delivered to their apartment after the wedding.

Rebecca opened the door, and Ben stood in the hallway. He had spent the night at their apartment, while she stayed in the Four Seasons bridal suite. It had been odd waking up alone, and she wasn’t used to staying somewhere so luxurious. The few times they’d allowed themselves proper vacations since founding their company, it was more fun to stay at Airbnbs or quaint hotels where they could soak up the local culture.

But Rebecca had made herself give in and enjoy the beauty and luxury of the bridal suite decorated for Christmas. The walls were paneled wood, and the carpet was a thick wool, the seafoam green of the San Francisco Bay. A white grand piano stood next to the window and there was a Christmas tree strung with colored lights. Linen sofas faced each other and the stone fireplace was hung with stockings. Vases of red and white Christmas roses stood everywhere: on the bar, in the bedroom, and on the giant coffee table carved from the base of a redwood tree. How often would she have the chance to stay in a place this beautiful?

“Ben.” Rebecca ushered him inside. “Are you all right? You look terrible.”

Ben had left the rehearsal dinner early, saying he felt a migraine coming on and that he didn’t want it to get worse. A sheen of perspiration stuck to his forehead, and his blue eyes, usually as bright as the bay on a clear day, were tired and missing their usual shine.

“I didn’t sleep,” he admitted.

He followed her inside and sat down on the sofa. Even when he was sick, he was still incredibly handsome. His light brown hair was parted to the side and he had a dimple on his cheek.

Ben had been the captain of the soccer team at UC Berkeley. When they’d first met—standing at the counter of a burger place near campus—the first thing Rebecca noticed was how muscular and athletic he was, with broad shoulders and strong thighs.

They’d both put in their order at the same time. Cheeseburgers with steak fries and mayonnaise instead of ketchup.

The waitress had picked up her notepad and glanced from Rebecca to Ben.

“Is this together?”

“No, we’ve never met.” Rebecca shook her head and turned to Ben. “I hate ketchup. It’s always too watery and the fries get soggy.”

“Ketchup is the worst,” Ben agreed solemnly. “I’ve lost an entire burger to ketchup that pools on the bottom of the plate.”

The waitress finished scribbling on her notepad.

“Well, perhaps you should eat together.”

That’s when Rebecca glanced over at Ben and noticed his radiant smile. She knew right away that something important had happened. That she’d met someone who would change her life.

Ben almost never got sick. In all the years of building the company, he only had the flu once. Even then, he kept working until Rebecca threatened to call his mother to come and take care of him unless he put away his laptop. But this was different. He couldn’t stand at the altar in his tuxedo if he was about to faint.

“Rebecca, we need to talk,” he began.

He twisted his watchband, the way he did before having a difficult conversation. Rebecca used to think it was odd that Ben wore a watch when everything he did was on his phone. The watch wasn’t about telling the time, it was like one of those rubber stress balls many CEOs kept on their desk.

He pushed his hair over his forehead. “I can’t get married.”

“I’ll call Kimi. She invented this drink for when she’s coming down with something before an important presentation. A seaweed and cauliflower-rice smoothie, with a spoonful of cocoa powder. It sounds awful, but it works.” Rebecca rushed to find her phone.

Kimi had been Rebecca’s best friend ever since Kimi was hired as a senior programmer at Rebecca and Kimi bonded over a love of shopping at the Anthropologie outlet store and drinking cold-brew coffee. Over the years they had shared everything. Kimi’s nine-month-old daughter, Leila, had just started day care two days a week, and Kimi wanted to make sure she and her husband, Andy, stayed healthy.

“I mean I can’t marry you ever.” Ben looked up at her. His mouth sagged at the corners and his expression was anguished. “You must have seen it coming, Rebecca. We’ve both changed. We couldn’t even agree on the number of guests to invite to our wedding.”

Ben had wanted to get married in Grace Cathedral’s main sanctuary followed by a reception for three hundred in the Four Seasons’ grand ballroom. They were one of Silicon Valley’s power couples, so it was expected that they have an over-the-top celebration. Rebecca had no problem with large groups; she had given countless speeches at tech conventions. But this wasn’t an industry event, as it was their wedding. Finally, they agreed on fifty guests, but with a surprise musical guest. Adam Levine from Maroon 5 was scheduled to perform.

But Ben was right, they hadn’t agreed on many things recently. For years, they lived frugally and poured all their money into the company. Lately, Ben was more interested in the trappings of success. He had ordered one of those German cars you built out online, and then took months to arrive. He wanted to put down a deposit on a penthouse in the newest skyscraper being built South of Market. Rebecca longed to buy a house near the water in Sausalito. Luckily, they both fell in love with a Bernadoodle puppy named Oliver, and it was impossible to have a dog when you lived thirty floors up in the sky. They compromised and made an offer on a sweet Victorian house in the Castro district.

Rebecca had always appreciated the simple things. Her bedside table held a forever-growing stack of books she was reading. Her favorite activity on the weekends was simply walking with Ben along the pier. And she was most excited about moving into a house because they could have a garden. But Ben hadn’t minded before. It was only in the past few months that the things she enjoyed weren’t enough for him.

Copyright © 2023 by Anita Hughes

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