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Home for Christmas
Author: Courtney Cole

 


Chapter One

 


From the air, my family’s lodge and the surrounding property sprawls amid snow-covered evergreen trees and mountainous rock.

On any given day, you can see bear, elk, moose, deer, coyotes, snowshoe rabbits, or cougars roaming the mountain. On any given night, you can hear mountain lions screaming or snow owls screeching. To someone who isn’t used to it, it can be terrifying.

To those of us who live in Alaska, it’s home.

But either way, it’s breathtaking.

Especially now, with the Christmas lights aglow on every surface of the house and holly boughs hanging from the wraparound log porch. It’s a welcome retreat, one that wealthy hunters pay us big bucks to fly them into.

I grab the radio and punch the button, high on the joy of flight, because it never gets old. Not ever.

“Shelly, tell the Norton party that we’ll be landing in two minutes. It’s time for seat belts.”

“Already done, Cap!” she chirps.

Our plane, a fully loaded Cessna Citation Latitude, descends smoothly to the strip below. I guide us in for a landing with the hands of a master. There’s nary a bump as we touch down.

I smile. Skills. I haz ’em.

Shelly joins me as we lower the steps and wait to greet our passengers.

“Welcome to Great Expectations Lodge,” I tell the group as they descend the stairs. The four of them look alike, all wearing expensive jeans and parkas, top-of-the-line boots . . . all of which match their outrageously priced equipment that is currently stowed in the belly of the plane. “We hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”

Hank Norton, the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, and the leader of this team of powerful C-suite executives, pulls me along by the elbow as we head for the lodge.

One of his men quickens his pace to keep up.

“This is your family home, correct?” he asks, his nose red from the cold. “Isn’t that what you said, Hank?”

Hank nods. “That’s exactly what I said.” He turns to me. “I was telling Paul a bit of the story of this place earlier. Paul is my CFO, and he’s easily intrigued by corporations that have outlasted time.”

I smile. “Well, I don’t know that I’d refer to it as a corporation, but Great Expectations has certainly been in my family for generations. My great-great-great-grandfather built it in the eighteen hundreds. At first it was a home, and when the Depression hit, my family used it to rent out rooms. It’s been a bed-and-breakfast, a hotel, a home, and most currently, it’s a host to amazing folks like you as you hunt for your next prized game trophy.”

He winks at me. “Oh, I’m gonna do my best, I can tell you that, young lady. I’m looking for an Imperial bull this year. The elk I got last year was good, but it was only a six-point Royal. Jenkins over there says that he got an eight-point Monarch last year in Alaska. I’m gonna beat that.”

I hide my flinch, as I think about the stunning Imperial I had seen standing on the snow-covered mountain just yesterday. It was so majestic, so beautiful . . . It makes me sick to think of it being hunted for sport. But as my gran always said, Buck up, Piper. This is our family business.

“I’m sure you’ll find one,” I tell him, swallowing my dismay as we stroll up the wide stone steps and onto the wraparound porch. “I saw one myself just yesterday.”

Mr. Norton crows and yells back at his friends, “I call dibs, fellas!”

They laugh, and Mr. Norton hums “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” as they tumble into the foyer of the lodge.

Hank holds the door open for me, confident in the way that the ultra-wealthy are, although every once in a while, there are hints that he might not have always been rich. He’d grabbed his own carry-on bag, for instance, instead of leaving it for someone else.

He also easily chats with my staff, something that few powerful men seem to do.

Ellen, our housekeeper/hostess, takes their coats and offers them drinks. White Christmas lights twinkle from high above, hanging lazily from the cathedral ceilings and exposed beams. A massive blue spruce stands in the corner, lit up for the holidays, a golden gleaming star on top, but no presents beneath.

Not this year. I swallow hard.

I try to slip away, handing the men off to Ellen’s capable hands, but Mr. Norton catches me.

“Wait, young lady,” he calls. “Where’s your gran? I was expecting her when we landed. She always waits for us out front with hot brandy.”

I nod to Ellen, a signal to go fetch that particular drink, then I clear my throat, trying to swallow the lump that lingers there.

“Um. I’m so sorry. Gran passed away a few weeks ago, I’m afraid. But I assure you, your experience here will be just as good as it’s always been. I’ve been working here since I was a kid. I know all the ropes.”

“Oh, I know you,” he tells me. “I’ve watched you grow up over the years, although in my head you still have knobby knees and pigtails. Time can be cruel. In my head, I’m still twenty-five.” He looks at me, sympathy gleaming in his cloudy eyes. “I’m sorry about Marina. She was one hell of a woman.”

“That she was,” I agree.

“One year, when I was here, she and I sat out in the barn to see who could drink the most tequila without passing out.”

I grin, a real one, which is odd, since my grief has prevented genuine joy lately. “That definitely sounds like her,” I tell him. “Who won?”

He wrinkles his head. “It’s the damndest thing . . . After drinking a fifth and a half, I don’t remember!”

He roars with laughter and I chuckle.

“Well, to be fair, Gran weighed ninety pounds soaking wet. So I think you might’ve had a little bit of an advantage, Mr. Norton.”

He laughs again, and his group heckles him for trying to outdrink such a lightweight.

“Now, now, none of that,” he tells them. “She was no ordinary woman. That Marina was . . . well, she was . . .”

“Something else,” I finish for him, nodding my head. “It’s been said. And it’s true.”

Everyone laughs.

“Well, you’ve certainly done her proud. I’ve never seen a better pilot,” he tells me. “And I don’t hand out compliments often.”

“No, he doesn’t,” the younger man to his left interjects. “My dad rarely, if ever, offers praise.” There’s a bit of bitterness in his eyes, and I wonder if he’s ever been the recipient of his father’s praise.

“Oh, pish,” Mr. Norton answers dismissively. “I praise someone when they earn it, Josh.”

Josh’s cheeks flare a dramatic shade of red, and I try once again to slip away.

“Marina was so proud of you,” Hank continues, and he’s got ahold of my arm again. “There were a few years when I’d come here and you were gone for pilot’s training. She talked about you nonstop and almost glowed from pride.”

“Really?” I ask. “She didn’t dole out compliments often either.”

“She did when they were warranted,” he corrects me with a grin. “Just like me.” He winks now, and I blush.

“Well, thank you. Sometimes . . . I feel that I disappointed her by choosing to fly.”

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