Christmas at the Ranch by Anita Hughes (Excerpt)

Chapter One

It was three days before Christmas and Samantha Morgan was putting the finishing touches on the manuscript she was due to send to her editor when the doorbell rang. Her heroine, Sloane Parker, had just called Phineas, her boss at British Intelligence, to tell him that she caught Miguel, the head of the diamond-smuggling cartel she had been assigned to shut down. Miguel was in a jail deep in the Guatemalan jungle while Sloane was back at her hacienda, rubbing antivenom ointment on her spider bites and popping the cork off a bottle of celebratory champagne.

For a moment, Samantha forgot where she was, and thought Miguel was at the door and the Guatemalan police had double-crossed her. Then she remembered she was in her Brooklyn apartment and that Miguel and the diamond cartel only existed in her imagination.

But she wasn’t expecting anyone. And whoever it was should be pressing the outside buzzer, instead of standing at her door. How did they get in? The knocking sounded again and a familiar voice called her name. Her dog, Socks, hopped from his comfortable place on the sofa and waited by the door for Samantha to open it.

She unbolted the two dead bolts and removed the fireplace poker she kept lodged under the doorknob. Her suspicions that she knew the mystery guest were confirmed when she saw the face of her editor. “Charlie, what are you doing here and how did you get in the building?” Samantha asked.

“Aren’t you going to let me inside?” Charlie dusted snow from his overcoat. “It’s freezing.”

“I’m sorry, I was writing and didn’t hear you.” Samantha ushered him into the small living room. Samantha’s slippers were wedged under an ottoman and there was an empty bowl of popcorn. “How did you get in?” Samantha asked again.

“You gave me the key a month ago.” Charlie removed a dog’s squeaky toy from the sofa. “You were afraid someone could slip in behind me when you buzzed me in.”

“I can’t remember anything when I’m in the middle of writing,” Samantha conceded. “And I read that thirty percent of apartment robberies occur because the burglar enters a building by sneaking in behind someone who was buzzed in.”

“You live in Park Slope. You should be more worried about getting run over by one of those giant strollers jamming the sidewalk.”

Samantha glanced at the clock on the mantel. The living room had exposed brick walls and a bay window. Her favorite feature was the fireplace. She knew she had truly hit the New York real estate lottery with this apartment. She loved snuggling with her rescue mixed beagle, Socks, in front of the fireplace at Christmas while she sipped hot apple cider and Socks chewed on a bone in the shape of a gingerbread man.

“What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be on the way to Emily’s parents’ house in Vermont?” she asked.

Emily was Charlie’s fiancée and they were going to spend Christmas week at Emily’s parents’ house in Vermont. It sounded magical: a village square with a skating rink and sleigh rides and free Christmas cookies. Samantha almost wished she had somewhere to go for Christmas. But she hated driving on icy roads and there was no one she wanted to spend a whole week with other than Socks.

“There’s a work emergency and I need your help,” Charlie replied.

“Everyone in publishing is off for the holidays. Don’t you remember attending the Christmas party?” Samantha said, grinning. “You and Emily hit the eggnog a little too hard, you both forgot the lyrics of ‘Jingle Bells.’”

“This is serious, Samantha. Arthur is having a house party and he wants you there.”

“That’s not serious, there are dozens of parties this time of year.” She waved her hand. “I’ll call and say I got food poisoning or I slipped on the ice and twisted my ankle. I’ll send a Christmas ornament as a gift. He’ll forget he invited me by the new year.”

“This is different. It’s for the whole Christmas week and Arthur specifically said he wants you there. Arthur’s Christmas parties are legendary. You should be excited.”

Last year, Arthur hosted a Christmas party at the Rainbow Room on the sixty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Plaza. Samantha wasn’t invited. Arthur’s tradition was to invite only one author and a variety of other guests. But she’d heard about it. There was lobster trucked in that morning from Maine, and Moët & Chandon champagne and chocolate lava cake served with vanilla gelato for dessert. Each guest received a personalized gift. The author, Derek Houseman, wrote detective novels, and he received two tickets on the Orient Express plus airfare.

“No way,” Samantha said with a gulp. “You know I hate to drive in the winter. And I couldn’t survive a whole week with complete strangers. What if one of them is returning from a foreign country and I come down with the bird flu?”

“Bird flu isn’t a thing anymore,” Charlie grunted. “You have to leave the apartment, Samantha. It isn’t healthy to spend all your time writing.”

“I volunteer once a week at the humane society and I’m a member of the food co-op. And I’ve been tutoring Way Ling’s daughter in English. She gives me free dumplings and we sit in the back of the restaurant.”

“You named three places within five blocks of your apartment.” His tone was gentler. “When was the last time you left Brooklyn?”

“I go into Manhattan all the time. I’ve never missed a team meeting,” Samantha reminded him.

“That’s because you’re a professional and I appreciate it,” Charlie said with a nod. “But this is a command performance. You have to go.”

“It’s not my fault that marketing created a social media campaign based around the fact that I’m just like Sloane Parker,” Samantha said with a grimace. “So what if Sloane wears a Galliano gown and flirts with a Russian double agent at a hotel bar in Moscow? I can still be happy in sweatpants, curled up with Socks in my living room.”

“That campaign helped make you a New York Times bestseller,” Charlie reminded her. “Your readers love imagining you’re just like Sloane and now isn’t the time to ruin their fantasy. Sales of the last book were down. If Arthur asks you to do something, you say yes.”

“How far down?” Samantha winced.

She knew sales on her latest Sloane Parker were lower than the previous book. Charlie had sent her and her agent a sales report last quarter. But she hadn’t asked Charlie about sales in over a month. If he had good news, it would come in an e-mail with GOOD NEWS in the subject line, followed by at least one exclamation mark. When there was bad news, Charlie didn’t send e-mail updates at all.

“Down enough that Arthur sent an e-mail asking if I knew an author named Melody Minnow,” Charlie said gravely.

“Melody Minnow isn’t an author,” Samantha growled. “She’s an Instagram star who can barely splice three coherent sentences together.”

“It doesn’t matter. Her Instagram has four hundred thousand followers and they buy her books. We need to keep your image out there.” Charlie studied Samantha’s sweatpants and faded T-shirt. “And nineties grunge isn’t going to cut it with your readers.”

“These are new sweatpants, I bought them online,” Samantha said. “And wait until you read the latest Sloane Parker. Sloane rappels through the Guatemalan jungle wearing stiletto heels that even I was jealous of.”

Copyright © 2022 by Anita Hughes